Mon | Jan 25, 2021

Mark Ricketts | The economics of poverty and indiscipline

Published:Sunday | October 20, 2019 | 12:00 AM

You see the cost and pain of lives lost in traffic accidents and families having no financial future as fire rages through multiple houses and old abandoned buildings, buildings over-inhabited and indifferent to zoning and density regulations.

You hear the neigbours cry over their inability to rescue an old man trapped on the second floor while the fire rages, or a mother in distress over losing her baby in a fire.

These vulnerable, dilapidated dwellings are a testimony to what society has sanctioned as normal and how our garrison-type politics of personal affection have pandered to us rather than prod us to do the right thing.

What brought all this to mind is more than buildings going up in flames or the horrible deaths on the road, but the statement by Justice Minister Delroy Chuck in last week’s Sunday Gleaner which read, “no point jailing deadbeat dads if they are broke and have no means to meet child maintenance obligations”.

That statement captures much of the economics of poverty and indiscipline that ails our society. It also provides an excuse for people, as in so many other areas, to sidestep their responsibility.

In market economics, when people do not have to pay a price for something, they oftentimes abuse it and they do not value it as much. They tend to over consume it. They tend to waste it. Moreover, many individuals develop a habit which makes them neither accountable nor responsible.

Equally, if some hard-working Jamaicans are not valued for what they produce, their low income blunts their motivation and traps them into poverty and indiscipline.

The extremely successful, call-it-as-you-see-it, track coach, Stephen Francis, elaborated on this concept in commenting on the potential of one of his outstanding stars at the recently concluded Doha track meet.

Francis said, “I don’t think he is close to where he can end up. But so far I think it has been difficult. He is from the ghetto, went to a non-traditional high school. It is difficult to get people from his background to focus on something which requires hard work.”

Hidden costs

Profitable companies, and even some government agencies, have to begin twinning the hidden costs to their company and the country when they continue leaving behind, in terms of livable wage, many staff workers who work hard. This usually happens when there is huge income inequality, and wages, training, and benefits are skewed disproportionately to some employees and the employers.

We incentivise poverty and indiscipline by compressing wage labour, even in some companies making good profits. And we do that also when our politicians pander to those who chose to be irresponsible.

Our society accepts a level of indulgence and our legislators do not develop strong institutions, employ requisite human resource talent, and enact sufficient behaviour-modifying legislation, to prevent people breaking the law or others persisting with levels of income inequality that make no sense from a macroeconomic standpoint.

Higher incomes and better benefits and training incentives for hard-working staff are likely to drive productivity, increase consumer spending, and add to GDP growth.

While we glorify our current macroeconomic indicators and the strength of certain sectors, such as tourism, somehow these achievements have not translated into improved per capita income. Explanations for this include our high levels of income inequality, the society’s facilitation of indiscipline, an inadequately educated, certified, and trained workforce, and a suppression of income for too many.

Both the private sector and the public sector can do much better by changing the narrative. They must exhort individuals about their financial, moral, and ethical responsibility to their family, their children, their spouses, while at the same time build institutions to ensure people will abide by the law as well as do the right thing.

But people are given a free pass, having done wrong and their actions are excused by saying there is no choice but to help.

Nearly 5,000 fathers are taken to family court each year for non-payment of child maintenance fees. There are many more but mothers can’t be bothered to seek justice. They do the best for their children.

Fathers – without taking into account their financial and parental responsibilities before bringing a child in the world, when they have neither the means, nor sometimes the interest, to parent – are excused from punishment by our minister of justice who publicly declared, “It’s OK not to punish since they can’t pay anyway. To the best of my knowledge, a lot of the fathers are just not in a position to carry out their duties.”

The result: more irresponsible fathers who see no connection, no price to pay, no financial burden to carry, between unprotected sex and taking care of children. After all, there will be no punishment, such as going to jail, if they can prove they have no money to pay. They will have heard the minister’s message loud and clear.


Parents, too, heard the prime minister when he said, “You are not obliged to pay auxiliary fees.” Many non-traditional schools are hurting as they grapple with less revenue. Responsibility and accountability can be shelved in determining what must be done in terms of parenting and funding to bring up a child.

While adults are having children that they can’t afford to maintain, not to worry if they have no place to stay, they can always join the 700,000 and more Jamaicans squatting on captured land.

Squatting continues. Nobody is stopping it, because nobody can answer the question posed by our politicians and our compassionate caretakers, “If these people have children and have nowhere to go, and can’t afford a place to live, you can’t expect them to sleep on the street, can you!”

The narrative continues, “I am not saying squatting is right or legal. It probably amplifies lawlessness. And the parents shouldn’t have had all those children if they can’t take care of them, but, now that the children are here, what choice is there? None, squatting is the only option.”

Some of the adults had choices, to do better in school; when they were growing up; and when they were about to have children. But that required discipline, hard work, sacrifice, and some tough choices.

Society, I suppose, has to now understand. What are people to do if they can’t feed their youth, pay child support, auxiliary fees, taxes, mortgage, and water?

It’s the economics of poverty and indiscipline. Somehow leadership is required.


 Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer. Email feedback to and