Mon | Sep 23, 2019

Camilo Thame and Maziki Thame | Porsches, poverty, prosperity

Published:Sunday | August 18, 2019 | 12:19 AMMaziki Tame and Camilo Thame - Contributors

Full employment occurred in slavery. It did not mean that Jamaicans were well off. Last year, unemployment fell to 9.1 per cent, the lowest in 50 years. Jamaica is said to be enjoying a great economic turnaround. In 2018, the country saw the sixth straight year of real gross domestic product (GDP) growth and the largest economic expansion since 2006.

Articles are being published on Jamaicans’ capacity to buy luxury cars, moving from being unable to pay ‘light bills’. If the spend on high-end motor vehicles means something, Jamaica is on good footing. Car imports increased by 150per cent over the 10 years to 2017.

The proportion of vehicles originating from Europe (from where Porsche comes) increased from one in eight in 2007 to one in five. Main roads are being upgraded to take Jamaicans across Kingston, and the country and high-rises are being built to take Jamaicans to the sky all across Kingston. But are Jamaicans well off and to be thankful?

We are told that we should not pay attention to the depreciating dollar (especially if yu get a likkle a yu fambily dem savings from farin) and that inflation is all that matters. There is even a billboard in Half-Way Tree to tell you so.

In Trumpian fashion in neo-liberal times, we are meant to believe that the things we thought we knew and understood were not actually so. All failure is personal, not structural. If an individual is not doing well, we should conclude that they are simply not in step in the partnership for prosperity. You are to forget your personal suffering because the rest of the nation is moving fast ahead. “If a money naa mek, ,dis year, a mus’ your fault.”

We should not make a connection between car imports and the foreign exchange rate. We should not make a connection between roadworks and water availability in Kingston and St. Andrew. There is a drought, we are told, even if it is raining. And if the more than 1,000 oversupply of apartments are eventually occupied, water will be found to prevent those who can afford them from bathing from buckets.

In a time of prosperity in Jamaica, there seem to be many contradictions. Over the 10-year period from 2007 to 2017, the proportion of persons living below the poverty line increased from 9.9 per cent to 19.3 per cent, or more than 500,000 people. The Jamaica Public Service reports rising losses to illegal consumption of electricity (from throw-ups and otherwise). This loss increased from 7 per cent of the energy fed to the grid in 2007 to 14 per cent in 2017. Perhaps most Jamaicans aren’t that far from being unable to pay their ‘light bills’ and can only dream to live their dreams of owning a Porsche.

Average inflation over the 10-year period was registered at 127 per cent. That means, the $6,200 minimum wage in 2017 could buy what $2,730 could buy 10 years earlier, when the minimum wage was $3,200. This speaks to a 15% reduction in the real minimum wage. And the increase in 2018 to $7,000 still puts it at below $3,000, in 2007 dollars. Poverty was at its lowest in 2007, and we might consider that that was connected to minimum wage increases. Middle-income earners also saw their buying power decline significantly. Public-sector workers (about 10 per cent of the total employed labour force) have seen successive wage freezes since the early 2000s. For example, a mid-level registered nurse would have seen her real take-home pay decline by more than 30% over the 10 years to 2017 because of inflation and small salary increments over the period. Even after the dramatic adjustment to the income tax threshold in 2018, her take-home was still just effectively 80% of what it was in 2007. The Government has told us that its commitment to addressing poverty is evidenced in its investment in PATH. It quadrupled grants issued through ‘social protection’, as it is now referred. But even if we ignore that this spending represented less than 1% of the Budget in 2017 (and today), we should consider that the amount was equivalent to an annual cash payment of $11,700 ($32 per day) per person living below the poverty line. These indicators show that it is not enough to say that GDP is growing. If you compare consumption in constant prices or 2007 dollars (that is, what a dollar could afford in 2007 with what it could afford in 2017), the GDP per capita was still less in 2017 than it was in 2007 (it was less in 2018, too). But the margin of difference over the 10 years was less than 2 per cent.

What do we want?

What is the point of jobs and growth if people’s lives are not better off? What do Jamaicans want for themselves? Is it smooth and expansive roads while people bathe from buckets because there is no water in our pipes? Do Jamaicans want a few to drive fancy cars while others are stealing electricity to put themselves into modernity?

Do Jamaicans want a few to live in mansions with beautiful roads paved directly to their houses while others manoeuvre through potholes and tracks to get to their shacks in the bush and inner city or middle-income house? And does it matter how wealth is created? Is hustling and scamming what Jamaicans wish to nurture or ignore?

It seems to us that the current debate about minimal growth and rising employment coexisting with rising poverty should consider what type of Jamaica people want to live in and who can take them there.

The latter has to be separated from popularity contests, from who can dress well, speak well, be youthful, have money fi spen pon wi, to who is properly interested in ensuring that when Jamaican women are menstruating, they have water to bathe themselves.

That imagery is important because women’s realities signal the outcome of national priorities. When women are made worse off, families are made worse off, given their over-representation in poverty, and as heads of households and caregivers.

Their particular relationship with water points to their status and the status of their families.

Before the institutionalisation of patriarchy through colonialism in Africa, gender balance was mediated through women’s control of water. There was in precolonial Africa a realisation that women’s power over water was attached to the well-being of families and communities. If women’s relationship to water was the priority in the nation, it would unavoidably also be less concerned with access to pretty cars for the few and more so to decent work, decent wages, and decent living for all.

Maziki Thame teaches in political science at Clark Atlanta University. Camilo Thame is a business analyst and data journalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.