Jaevion Nelson | Budgeting for more than social safety nets
The opening of the budget debate by Finance Minister Audley Shaw on March 9 has generated quite a bit of discussion. Everyone is eager to share his concerns about the revenue measures announced and bemoan the impact it will have on the poor. It's also at this time that you realise everyone (me included) is a celebrated economist and budget analyst.
I am pleased to see the level of conversation taking place and the engagement with the process. Jamaica will certainly benefit from citizens having a keen interest in the budget and monitoring same throughout the financial year.
The commentary I have seen and heard is, to a large extent, centred around the increase in the tax threshold which, as of April 1, 2017, will be $1.5 million, and the tax on health insurance and gas. There's a lot of banter and cheap political catchphrases as well, which are being used to describe the government's attempt at "taking Jamaica from poverty to prosperity". Much of this is really hypocrisy and politicking masquerading as 'concern' for those at the bottom. It's so very exhausting.
It's rather uncanny that we are expressing concerns for the poor and are not asking questions about what the government will do for the poor and vulnerable poor beyond the $3.68 billion or 47 per cent increase to PATH and the requests to roll back some of the revenue measures which were announced. Like big businesses, many of my friends in the middle class who rarely express concern for the welfare of the poor and vulnerable are really interested in protecting what matters to them most. The same can be said of politicians who pay lip service to the poor's welfare with their utterances on political platforms and conveniently say things throughout the year to woo the media's attention.
The discussions I appreciate most, though, are those I have with persons like the driver of the taxi I was travelling in on Monday. It gives you a sense of what those who least benefit from successive governments' efforts to improve the economy and facilitate greater development think.
A LIVEABLE WAGE
If there is to be shared prosperity, the government must clearly outline how it will achieve this beyond its promise of economic growth. By now, we should all understand that economic growth is not synonymous with an increase in the livelihood and well-being for the poor. Trickle-down economics does not work. Oxfam International has published enough reports to prove that.
I note that Shaw's presentation around the government "not los[ING] sight of the need to protect the poor and vulnerable in the society" was limited to PATH. I would like to think that they appreciate that a more holistic programme must be pursued of which PATH can be a part. The 30 per cent increase in benefits to beneficiaries is commendable, but let's not pretend it's all that is needed. More must be done, including making it more accessible. PATH does not do everything for the poor. Its benefit is largely to students based on strict conditions.
I am aware there are other programmes, many of which are administered through the Ministry of Labour and Social Security and municipal corporations (formerly parish councils). Sadly, these merely help to protect the poor and vulnerable from falling too far below the poverty.
The government must be more deliberate in increased resources provided to under-resourced schools which I imagine is where most PATH beneficiaries learn; minimum wage must be increased to a liveable wage (we can argue what that looks like at the appropriate time); greater protection is needed in law for domestic/household workers and other low-income earners; and more support must be provided for tertiary students from the poorest households. Importantly, the budget presented must suggest that the welfare of the poor is at the heart of the debt-reduction and growth strategy.
Shaw hinted at a review of the impact of PATH on school attendance. May I suggest the scope of the assessment be expanded to include the impact on the livelihood and well-being, the percentage of beneficiaries who matriculate to tertiary institutions, and how the schools they attend limit the effectiveness of the programme.