Tue | Mar 31, 2020

Arnold Bertram | Take warning!

Published:Friday | August 16, 2019 | 12:20 AM
Arnold Bertram
This homeless person cooling off at a fire hydrant can be considered one manifestation of the impact of poverty on sections of the island.
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The dramatic increase in the poverty rate by 5.2 percentage points in the Kingston Metropolitan Region (KMR) and by 4.1 percentage points across other towns in 2017 (Jamaica Survey of Living Conditions) is a bombshell that has exploded the myth peddled over the last three years by the JLP that it is taking the Jamaican people from “poverty to prosperity”.

Calculated on a base of 17.5 per cent, the percentage-point increases translate to a 30 per cent rise in the KMR and a more than 20 per cent spike across the other towns. Urban poverty, on this scale, is the clearest warning that the threat of anarchy looms even larger.

The sobering reality that stares us in the face is that an increasing number of the 1.22 million Jamaicans categorised as employed are earning such low wages that they are now falling below the poverty line. ‘Hustling’ has replaced regular employment, with “the largest increase in the employed labour force between April 2017 and April 2018 [occurring] in elementary occupations … which include, among other jobs, car washers and street vendors”.

Those now being recruited as contract workers are hardly better off than those ‘hustling’, since contract employment denies them their hard-won rights, including maternity leave and a pension to support them in their old age. They are all on the road to poverty.

Life for the 122,000 unemployed is even more precarious, and dire poverty is creating a breeding ground for crime among the 325,000 young Jamaicans between 15 and 34 who are “neither working nor looking for work”, the majority of whom had four years of high school without certification in a single subject.

While the poor eke out a living at the margins of the society, rampant corruption at all levels of the JLP administration is the order of the day.

 

The Threat of Anarchy

 

In a society already burdened with economic hardship, public corruption normalises criminal behaviour, and the present extent of urban poverty accelerates the drift into anarchy we are witnessing.

In the capital city, public order is rapidly disappearing, leaving a growing criminal element to rob, maim, and murder with impunity. As one travels around the city, the deterioration is palpable. Just visit Half-Way-Tree any night when the police are not out in numbers, and observe the mayhem created as the ‘loaders’ for public transport and street vendors take charge. A windscreen wiper informed me that he and some of his friends now do a double shift at both the traffic lights at Waterloo Road and Liguanea to make ends meet.

In St James, murders jumped more than 41 per cent, up to August 3, compared to the corresponding period last year, despite a state of emergency, zone of special operations and Operation Restore Paradise active. The crime and antisocial behaviour that overruns May Pen and Savanna-la-Mar will spread to other towns where poverty is on the rise.

Municipal corporations no longer have the authority to enforce parochial laws and the undermanned and under-resourced police force riddled with corruption will not be able to protect law-abiding citizens against the wave of anarchy that threatens to overwhelm us.

Whither Jamaica’s political parties?

Where do Jamaica’s political parties stand in all of this? The failure of successive administrations over the past four decades to make life better for the majority of Jamaicans has eroded public confidence in political parties. In the 2016 general election, only 47.7 per cent of electors marked ballots, and the present administration was elected by less than 25 per cent of the electorate.

This dramatic increase in poverty totally discredits the Holness-Clarke trickle-down economic policy that has increasingly concentrated wealth at the top, indebtedness in the middle, and incarceration among the poor, which keeps Jamaica among the most inequitable societies in the world.

It is also forces the electorate to re-examine its criteria for political leadership. The initial ‘romance’ with youthfulness and style has completely evaporated with Holness’ failure. An electorate faced with rising poverty will increasingly opt for leadership that brings to the table a solid record of performance and the capacity to fix what is going wrong. Based on these criteria, Peter Phillips remains head and shoulders above all his colleagues. The Bill Johnson polls confirm that the PNP under Phillips leadership, the PNP is closing the gap on the JLP, and the driving factor is the increased activism of the party inside and outside Parliament

All those who yearn for an alternative to the Holness administration want to see a united PNP consolidate its readiness to govern by engaging the public even more in a constructive dialogue to present its vision of a more equitable and inclusive Jamaica together with the policies and programmes to realise this vision.

Unbelievably, at this time when the PNP is moving in the right direction, a leadership challenge threatens the unity so necessary for further progress. Would Peter Bunting not better serve the party by being a more effective shadow minister of industry, investment and competitiveness? How can the holder of this critical portfolio remain so silent while the party promotes its policy of expanding ownership and entrepreneurship at the base of the society to build a more equitable Jamaica?

Since 2006, no administration has been re-elected, and the present administration, with its unprecedented record of corruption and mismanagement, is set to lose the next election. The only straw for Holness to clutch at is the potential of Bunting’s leadership challenge to so wound the PNP as to give the JLP a chance in the next general election. Take warning!

 

Arnold Bertram is a historian and former minister of government. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and redev.atb@gmail.com.