The ‘rural-to-urban  migration’ paradox

The burgeoning urban-poor problem and all its other attendant social problems like squatter-housing congestion, joblessness, criminality, drugs, prostitution, traffic, street-children and juvenile delinquency are blamed partly on the massive “rural-to-urban migration.”

City glitters as magnets. Past efforts to reverse migration proved ineffective. Former First Lady Imelda R. Marcos, then-Metro Manila governor, transformed the metropolis into the “City of Man” and even ridiculously  offered free fares back to the provinces only to fail.

The more she beautified the city, the more its glitters attracted rural  folks  who were lured by the promises of a better life, stable jobs, neon lights, shopping  malls and other amenities.

Location theory in economics asserts that urbanization is a natural direction and is actually  good for business, on one hand,  as it creates bigger markets and concentrates them for easier distribution of  goods and services.

Growth in urban demographics also made it more lucrative for real- estate developers of condominiums and housing, and for business-process outsourcing industry and other foreign investors. In turn, it triggers more  jobs,  need for education, health services and other amenities.

Push-pull factors worsening problems. While all these demographic movements are welcome to business, on the contrary, they are unwelcome, particularly from the same well-heeled and scented crowds of  business.

Expectedly, the magnetic attraction triggers a backlash as it reinforces the problem of rural-to-urban migration and the “eyesores” it creates.

The problem is not  only caused by the magnetic pull, but there are also “push factors,” like agricultural backwardness, devastations caused by natural disasters like Supertyphoon Yolanda and severe droughts or the raging insurgency wars and military onslaughts in the countryside.

It is no wonder you have pockets of ethnolinguistic groups in many slums, or even indigents living on street pavements, particularly the sea-faring Badjaos who don’t have basic skills, but to beg in the streets.

In short, it is widespread countryside poverty, which accounts for 76.1 percent of total poverty, that is pushing younger rural folks to seek “greener  pastures”  in the  “concrete  jungles,” leaving behind their parents, thus, farmers are on the average older  at 58 years old.

Land reform partly causing problem? Land reform, a milestone program of former President Corazon C. Aquino, aimed to solve problems in agriculture, but, on the contrary, it has created new problems, not only because of poor support services, but because land reform hastened land parceling, thus, reducing efficiency and reversing the benefits of  economies  of scale.

Unless farmers bond together into cooperatives to keep lands contiguous, being fragmented will deprive them of the benefits of economies of scale. Even landowners, allowed retention limits per child, were also forced to fragment their lands, and further more with their grandchildren.

Contributing further to the problem are more and bigger farmer families from succeeding generations, all dependent on the same piece of land, thus increasing inefficiently the man-to-land ratio. Obviously, productivity  drops steadily, inevitably forcing younger generations to move to the cities, and reinforcing pressures toward farmers getting older on the average.

Rising disguised unemployment? Increasing family labor for the same piece of land indicates increasing “disguised unemployment” or “surplus idle labor.” More so, with prevailing backward farm practices limited to planting and  harvesting, manifesting so much idle time in-between seasons.

Another paradox happens when backward agriculture is modernized. We must willingly welcome change and modernization as we are not Luddites, who oppose technologies, but consider modernization as the only way to bail out agriculture from backwardness, although it is also true that mechanization will partly displace rural workers.

As more rural folks get dislocated with modernization, the more they will migrate to the cities, and, thus,  the dilemma. But never stop modernization as it is the right thing to do, but we must also bolster industry and socially necessary services to absorb  displaced  rural labor.

Benefits of rural-to-urban migration.  As we complain about rural-to-urban migration, it actually also offers benefits. For one, it increases city labor supply and expand urban markets, benefiting consumer industries.

Although still earning less, their sheer volume as part of the urban poor  still  accounts for the bulk of consumers. Even if they can’t spend much and seldom go out shopping, their huge numbers still fill up malls and  fast-food chains. Even during the crises years, they bolstered fast foods and telcos, the latter which gained for the Philippines the monicker text capital of the world. Other businesses benefit from the explosion in urban demographics.

Second, faster money circulation in the metropolis allows money to pass through many hands among the poor, including the  jobless and marginalized like jeepney  barkers, watch-your-car boys, street children, etc.

Third, once they start earning, many of them remit back home to the provinces, thus improving disparity of income between urban and rural folks. Fourth, an expanded urban market triggers bigger demand for food, thus, boosting back agricultural production. Last, resulting rural growth helps provide jobs and  higher  incomes  for  rural folks,  thus cushioning partly  the  rural-to-urban migration.

Right not to be left behind? While policy-makers worry about stemming the flow of rural folks leaving their farms, we must respect people’s right to migrate or make choices, in another right, in pursuit of happiness and not be left behind, even if it means escaping rural misery only to end up in urban  poverty.

The problem is the same with the 12 million Filipino migrants and overseas Filipino workers, who seek greener pastures, mostly in the brown deserts of war-torn Middle East countries. Nobody can stop them, and whatever they do, even for selfish reasons, they contribute  a lot  to their families  and  to the Philippine economy.

Regardless, about who are left behind and whose rights must be protected, it is urgent we give attention to agriculture, where 76.1 percent of those living  below the poverty line reside.


E-mail: [email protected].

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Michael Alunan was for many years a full time business journalist tasked to mind other people’s businesses, but he tried venturing later into business going left and right, up and down, zig and zag till he broke down with heart surgeries for aortic valve replacement and two cases of aneurysm. He is now busy with pro-bono coop organizing and social entrepreneurship development for basic sectors and just keeps a weekly column for the love of writing and to have fun and make pun, while contributing to policy reforms and program development.


  1. Cities are engine of growth that fuels the economies of great nations. During the reign of First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos as Metro Manila Governor and Human Settlement Minister, She envisioned a Mega Manila that will extend upto Infanta Quezon In the East, Bulacan in the North, Laguna and Cavite in the south to accomodate the growing population of Metro Manila due to migration.


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