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Tackling anew the crisis of poverty

Saturday, March 31, 2012


THE scale of economic deprivation in Jamaica today is so devastating that it has swelled the ranks of the vulnerable underclass throughout the entire population. Many Jamaicans now live trapped in a Sisyphean-type existence, surrounded by obscene wealth and disparities and an overpowering culture of consumerism in a society whose mainstream institutions still fail to work in their interest.

Without an overhaul, review and rejuvenation of the approach to confronting the plight of these indigent Jamaicans and the galloping poverty confronting them, the society can expect greater responses of anger, anomie, anxiety and alienation to their precarious existence.

And not only will the crisis of poverty guarantee that those with a tenuous and precarious link with the society grow in numbers, but criminalised strugglers will continue to define the cultural bases of our contemporary survival as a predominantly black post-colonial Commonwealth society.

Clearly, our experience with poverty is crying out for change. One initiative that can contribute to changing this experience of human blight is the establishment by the government of an Anti-Poverty Commission, notwithstanding the recent decision of the PNP Cabinet to single out the challenge of poverty in Jamaica for special attention by the establishment of a Poverty Reduction Unit within the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ).

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I wish to take nothing away from the wisdom to establish this new unit. It is, after all, a fitting reflection of Prime Minister Simpson Miller's admirable life-long commitment to the anti-poverty struggle in Jamaica, and the institutional expression of that commitment by a government from whom much is expected in the advancement of our human capital.

But the struggle against our growing spread of poverty in the second decade of the 21st century will require a far greater national effort than the poverty studies and analyses with which the PIOJ unit will most likely be preoccupied, important though they will be.

In any event, there have been similar governmental responses before to the scourge of poverty in the shape of the Social and Economic Support Programme, Lift-UP Jamaica Programme, and the National Poverty Eradication Programme, to name a few. With the exception of a fall in poverty levels under the PNP administration from 30.5 per cent in 1989 to 16.9 per cent in 1999, all such responsive programmes to poverty by the state have failed to "eradicate" or significantly transform our poverty population.

In recent times, the rate of unemployment nationally jumped from 12.4 per cent in 2010 to 12.7 per cent in 2011, plunging some 16.5 per cent of Jamaicans below the poverty line. And to make matters worse, the rate of poverty in the rural areas stands at 22.5 per cent compared to 12.8 per cent and 10.2 per cent in urban areas and other towns, respectively.

This has negatively affected our rate of productivity, which slipped by some 3.2 per cent in 2009 when compared to 2008, leading currently to a mere 28 per cent of our skilled personnel participating in the labour force.

What is more, the bleakest poverty is still to be found among the young (14 - 24 years), where unemployment jumped from 27.1 per cent in 2008 to 31.5 per cent in 2009. Small wonder that 50 per cent of major crimes committed in the latter year were carried out by people 16 - 25 years old. Furthermore, women and the elderly - the experts tell us - continue to account for substantial shares of what former ILO researcher, Guy Standing, and philosopher Noam Chomsky, refer to as the growing "precariat", or poor and precarious underclass.

In the face of this stubborn reality, common sense suggests that an Anti-Poverty Commission created by an Act of Parliament can be a great contributor to the push-back against the further spread of poverty in Jamaica. This is so because it would utilise a collaborative multi-dimensional institutional framework grounded in economic growth and its equitable and inclusive distribution, designed exclusively to giving a voice of influence in those areas of policy across all sectors of government and the private sector that affect the poor. In other words, a body like this would command the participation of all stakeholders - local and central government, government agencies, the private sector, civil society, and the poor themselves - in the struggle against poverty. The cold fact is that this struggle is in need of a continuous non-partisan multi-sectoral focus on how to put labour back to work, based on broad-based recommendations that have demonstrable results.

An Anti-Poverty Commission based on inter-agency planning on poverty reduction, furthermore, will shift decision-making away from misguided bureaucratic and political personnel, and areas where patronage might even be operating.

A change of perception is required of the society to confront the new kind of poverty that has proved resistant to the anti-poverty programmes at hand. And for this we will need to change our fundamental angle of vision about confronting this complex ogre. But in the long run, reducing poverty in Jamaica will be less about reducing the income gap between the rich and the poor and more about addressing the asset gap between them.


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