Imani Duncan-Price: Getting to the poor at their door - Managing the politics of targeted social support
What if we could have a revamped tax system in Jamaica that allowed for increased funding of a comprehensive social-support programme that sufficiently covered all Jamaicans below the poverty line and provided specific social support to Jamaicans who are near poor? And couple that helping hand with programmes to enable a real leg-up?
It would be possible to lift Jamaica - as that's about 1.1 million people! Looking around the country, it is clear that there is capital here, but in concentrated pockets not necessarily applied to the most productive or socially constructive uses. Now, don't misunderstand me: A woman or man has the right to enjoy the benefits of her or his hard-earned (honestly earned) money. However, to enjoy that in a sustainable way and enable more Jamaicans to live a better life, the situation in Jamaica has to change - the level of inequality and poverty cannot continue.
This takes national consensus, political backbone, creativity, well-designed policies relevant to our Jamaican experience, and a commitment to arithmetic. It has to add up correctly to not retard the economic advances we've made.
Now, just because some of the mechanisms that we have in Jamaica don't work perfectly does not mean we can't build on the foundation. In this case, I'm speaking of the Government's Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH). Such programmes, employing various types of 'conditional cash transfers', are foundational to social policies in many places in the world to fight and reduce poverty. In the short term, the aim is to mitigate the problems resulting from poverty. In the long term, the goal is to invest in human capital and interrupt the transgenerational cycle of poverty, which is from one generation to another.
As I said in a previous article, PATH has to be restructured and funding expanded, but utilising this key programme as a pillar in our social policy can also boost our economic growth and development, especially if coupled with comprehensive tax reform and targeted asset-based community development.
AVOIDING POLITICAL SUICIDE
Now with a slow-growing economy, a restructured PATH would have to be expanded through a redistribution of taxes - not necessarily an increase in taxes all around. This kind of tax reform would have to be characterised by simplicity, equity, and competitive rates to also promote economic growth and act as a catalyst for sustained development.
In transforming the tax system, it is critical that the vulnerable are protected. Questions on whether this can be assured have understandably been the Achilles heel in moving with an overhaul of the system, especially when it comes to widening the GCT base - characterised as politically suicidal.
Any significant change to a tax system, especially with an impact on 1.1 million Jamaicans living in the lowest income brackets, would have to first undergo testing, that is, testing elements of the new system before full implementation to make sure it works.
Of course, it's important to understand the pros and cons before designing the right fix. As at December 2011, PATH provides cash transfers to approximately 120,000 poor households, totalling 389,000 individuals. Findings of the '2012 Targeting Assessment of the PATH' stated that 81 per cent of Jamaica's neediest (below the food poverty line) are receiving assistance under the PATH initiative. The other 19 per cent of persons receiving benefits are above the food poverty line but fall in the category of 'near poor'. This means that the core of the programme is good and can be restructured for more effective coverage.
Further, significant government dollars fund a range of other social support initiatives. It would be imperative for those funds to be coordinated as an effective buffer with an expanded GCT base. A restructured PATH can also incorporate these other government social-support initiatives such as social housing, income opportunities like chicken farming, and emergency employment to efficiently target the vulnerable. This objective approach would also reduce the persistent complaint that members of parliament frequently allocate such support to people who don't need it and do so unfairly.
As such, restructuring would cover key questions. Has the Beneficiary Identification System (BIS) been amended to better determine eligibility of members of poor and 'near-poor' households to access PATH benefits? Have we captured all households within the 1.1 million with sufficient data to design targeted social support? Have we tested direct transfer to cash cards on a subset of the target beneficiaries? Do we have a rebranding and operational plan that reduces stigma and establishes the programme as a helping hand? We have the capacity to fix PATH and design a programme that works even more effectively, taking bold decisions to build a more caring and growing society.
PATH can channel funds through direct cash transfers to bank accounts linked to cash cards, controlled by caregivers of the target households, to offset the negative impact of GCT reform on the food basket for the most vulnerable. But more can be done via this technology.
Transportation costs represent a large share of the budget in the lower-income group who primarily use public transport. Through joined-up Government, JUTC cards could be programmed for reduced bus fares for all PATH beneficiaries in urban areas. For vulnerable families living in rural areas, Government could fund the cash cards to offset transport costs with PPV vehicles (route taxis), especially for children going to school.
Issuing meal cards to every student in school - not colour-coded to distinguish who is on PATH - could expand the impact of the Enhanced School Feeding Programme. All students in schools would have cards, and these would be funded by parents who can afford to or by Government.
National Health Fund (NHF) benefits can also go directly on to the cash cards. Indeed, no more lines at the post office to pick up a PATH cheque. No one has to know who is on PATH.
OPPORTUNITY, NOT DEPENDENCY
In addition, a revitalised and refocused Jamaica Business Development Corporation (JBDC) and Social Development Commission (SDC), working with community organisations in consistently marginalised communities, can apply the asset-based community development (ABCD) approach to truly unlock Jamaica's growth.
Given the good and impactful that naturally emerges from our inner-city communities with little help, imagine if Jamaica galvanised to identify and build on the assets that are already in these communities! Mobilising and linking existing micro assets to the macro environment is foundational to inclusive growth.
This comprehensive approach to social support tied to ABCD and 'pro-employment' social-intervention programmes like 'Steps to Work', NYS, and YUTE, which includes mandatory training and skills upgrading, can unleash the wave of social justice that Jamaica needs.