Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Jaevion Nelson | Budget and the poor

Published:Saturday | April 8, 2017 | 4:00 AM

The Budget process continues to expose the stark reality of the poor - they have no non-governmental organisation and barely anyone to defend their rights and welfare.

To make matters worse, they are, for the most part, unable to voice their concerns about the likely impact it will have on them because they often lack the capacity to interrogate Budgets, and if they do, they do not have access to spaces where these discussions are taking place.

Seldom do you hear civil-society advocates talk about these matters, though Budgets tabled hardly provide assurance that they will improve their livelihood and well-being.

This, I believe, is one of the most profound problems with our country - the unconcern about those who live in poverty and the Band-Aid solutions to addressing these problems. You might quip that we talk a lot about the poor during the Budget process. Yes, usually out of convenience for political mileage or to make our special interests appear less selfish. Those who are more well-off dominate the conversation.

Consequently, the poor are forced to depend, to a large extent, on politicians to do so, and subject themselves to their politicking. Much of this is, however, insincere because politicians' advocacy in this regard always hinges on where they sit in Parliament.

Every year, the poor are given more promises of better to come while taxes increase and their situation worsens. The government then delivers an emotional plea, asking them to 'ban dem belly and mek di sacrifice' so Jamaica can live up to its true economic potential.

Explanations are thrown around to ease our discomfort for the taxes imposed, and they are spun in a way to (hopefully) make the government look good and silence the Opposition. Some proposals are amended in response to pressure from interest groups representing specific sectors that have the clout and the wherewithal to force the government to be a bit more frugal.

Typically, politicians use the same words or equally stinging and relatable synonyms to describe the actions of the government (of the day). Words like 'wicked', 'uncaring', and 'unconscionable' are frequently used.

 

POLITICIANS' THEATRICS

 

If one is strident or savvy enough, they spin the daylights out of their actions or inactions, stage a walkout, heckle the hell out of the government or even up bring a basket of food items to illustrate how difficult life is, and will be, for the poor. Recall the hullabaloo about 'fish back' a few years ago?

Not too long ago, the People's National Party (PNP) was in the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) position, defending the revenue measures they tabled as pragmatic and much needed to fix the mess that the JLP left us in. Now it's the JLP's turn to convince us that these so called 'revenue-neutral' measures will ensure shared prosperity for all.

But who genuinely defends the poor in all of this?

What strikes me most is the lack of attention parliamentarians tend to give to the actual spending as well. Sure, the PNP has raised concerns about the reductions in allocation to the Students' Loan Bureau (SLB), but concerns are myopically framed around taxes.

If Shaw reverses the increase in the fuel tax, would that result in much difference for those who earn $6,200 per week? Are taxes the only thing affecting their ability to feed themselves and family, send children to school, or cover necessary health expenses?

Who conducts the analysis to see how spending for different programmes - not merely social assistance - will help to improve their situation and better enable them to live to their fullest potential?

There is a very clear and desperate need for an organisation dedicated to working with the poor and championing economic empowerment and justice for them. This would help to end to the lip service they have been subjected to over the years.

- Jaevion Nelson is an advocate for human rights and social and economic justice. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com, or tweet @jaevionn.