Sun | Nov 29, 2015

Put paid to poverty

Published:Sunday | December 9, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Aldrie Henry-Lee, Contributor

IN 1962, there were 1,622,800 persons living in Jamaica. The economic growth rate was 3.36 per cent per annum, life expectancy was 64 years, the infant mortality rate was 48.1 per 1,000, and there were 66 reported murders annually. Now, 50 years later, life expectancy at birth is 74 years, infant mortality rates have improved to 20 per 1,000, access to safe water is now enjoyed by 81 per cent of Jamaican households, and almost 100 per cent of all households have access to sanitary facilities.

Jamaica's epidemiological profile approximates that of more advanced economies, and infectious diseases are under control. Notable achievements in sports, education, and reggae have improved Jamaica's international profile. The early emphasis on providing education for all may have contributed to the gains in educational outcomes. Jamaica is now rated as a middle-income country, with a decent Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.727, and ranks 79th out of 187 countries.

Nevertheless, there are some sobering realities, especially the annual murder rate. From an already high 10th position in the world in the mid-'70s, Jamaica moved to a rank of third in 2003. The murder rate per year now stands at over 1,000. The recent gains may well be illusory.

Poverty in Jamaica

The Jamaican Government's 1997 Ministry Paper 13 defines public poverty as a condition in which a community lacks such basic amenities and infrastructure as piped water, toilets, electricity, roads, and sanitation. High levels of public poverty in some communities have severely restricted the individual's life chances in Jamaica for decades. The Government's Ministry Paper also recognised private poverty as a state in which people do not have the means to live above a minimum standard. Using an estimate of a poverty line, PIOJ-STATIN's Jamaica Survey of Living Conditions shows that in 1990, 28.4 per cent of all Jamaicans were living in poverty. Inequality has remained the norm, and the richest 10 per cent of the population consumes almost 10 times more than the poorest 10 per cent.

By 2009, nearly 500,000 persons were said to live in poverty in Jamaica. The individual poverty line moved from J$38,049 in 1999 to $110,099.56 in 2009, up from $104,736.56 in 2008. The most recent available data on poverty estimates that 17.6 per cent of Jamaicans lived in poverty in 2010. The minimum wage is $4,500 per week, making the poverty line fall below the annual minimum wage of J$234,000. Based on the overall decline in poverty since 1990, however, Jamaica is said to have achieved Millennium Development Goal 1 for poverty reduction. Interestingly, Jamaica has also achieved Millennium Development Goal 2, having attained universal primary education.

There are larger proportions of persons in the rural areas living in poverty. Those aged less than 17 years represent the highest proportions of persons living in poverty. One in every five children lives in poverty. The Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica 2011 reports that youth aged 15-24 constitute 19.5 per cent of those who live in poverty. Households in poverty have larger household sizes. The poor usually live in poor communities and generally lack access to good-quality education, social inclusion and employment, and also live in inferior-quality accommodations. The motivation to work and seek gainful employment is often inhibited by poor wages and working conditions. Even those who work are often underemployed and voiceless.

Entrenchment of Poverty

Poverty thrives because of deeply institutionalised deficiencies. There is a clear correlation between public poverty and high levels of private poverty. Sluggish GDP growth in Jamaica has led to very poorly maintained public infrastructure. Economic crises of the early 1990s led to a sharp increase in public debt as a per cent of GDP, from 86 per cent in 1998 to 146 per cent by 2003, and $11.9 billion at the end of March 199l to $139.2 billion at the end of March 1999. Now, in 2012, total debt has ballooned to $l.7 trillion! It is becoming increasingly difficult to fund social development from the available domestic resources.

People living in poverty in Jamaica receive very few essential services. Universal education has been realised for all Jamaican children, yet in 2012, access to good-quality education as a norm in all schools remains significantly unfulfilled. Fifty years into Independence, every child in 2012 is not guaranteed the same quality of education and may be condemned to a life of social exclusion if he or she does not get into a preferred high school. Proficiency in English is barely adequate, and mathematics results were at an unimpressive low at 39.9 per cent in the 2011 CXC examinations. A February 23 Gleaner report noted that "[t]he cause for concern … is the number of persons within the age cohort who have not registered for examinations and whether they are being meaningfully engaged in other activities". There has been increased physical access to school buildings, but the quality of education remains uneven. Those who live in poor communities have limited educational options and are condemned to inter-generational poverty unless they are determined, ambitious, and lucky.

While unemployment rates have declined from 22.5 per cent in 1997 to 12.6 per cent in 2011, the annual youth unemployment averaged 30.1 per cent, according to the Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica 2011. Fifty-two per cent of all unemployed persons had no formal educational qualifications, and 50 per cent of first-time job seekers had no certification either. This is most disturbing.

Social protection for the most vulnerable in the society has been improved over the years but requires more strategic targeting. The Programme of Advancement through Health and Education (PATH) has had tremendous success in poverty amelioration, but was only able to target 330,275 persons in 2011, and benefits remain inadequate.

At the micro level, Philip Curtin's two-Jamaicas thesis remains valid. Youth from inner-city communities still complain of difficulty in accessing employment once they reveal their home addresses. They are not allowed to move easily into the "other Jamaica". Several of those living in poverty engage in "non-developmental" coping strategies that further entrap them. Some of them prefer to engage in illegal activities even when the chance of becoming gainfully or legally self-employed is possible. Remittances, barrels of goods from relatives, migration, scamming, and corruption have helped to functionally ease the burden of poverty, and a culture of resilience has become a norm which typically trumps their legal empowerment. An inner-city young man once said, "We always 'ave hard times in Jamaica - a nu nutting." This cultural resilience has led to the tendency to believe that one's lot in life cannot be better and to an attitude of entitlement and dependence on politicians and criminal dons. Many poor persons continually live on the edge and think of 'creative' ways to survive. They expect little and accept little. That is why, ironically, Jamaica ranked third on the Global Happiness Index in 2009 - "Jamaica, no problem". But for how long? In the 50th year of Independence, the two Jamaicas have managed to co-exist in relative harmony aided by several periods of heavy migration and a proclivity to be physically close to each other and to stay "cool" while their social realities remain distinct.

Another 50 years of the same?

Without immediate and sustained interventions, sustainable development for all will not be attained in the next 100 years. Given the current debt situation, the quality of life of future generations of Jamaicans has also been compromised. Sustained economic growth is essential. Access to good-quality education is vital. The current GSAT and educational structure perpetuate the two-Jamaicas dichotomy. The quality of education provided at all non-traditional high schools needs to be drastically improved. Problems of illiteracy at all levels of the education system need to be addressed. Social and economic entrepreneurship should be taught very early in schools and sustained throughout schooling and life. Investment in early-childhood education may provide the most significant way forward for Jamaica.

The situation of unattached youth is desperate. There will be need for more prisons if we do not provide radically better education and training for the youth with entrepreneurial ambitions. Increased access to credit and savings must be provided. Access to decent jobs with decent pay is a priority even for the large numbers of working poor in Jamaica today. The combinations of top-quality early-childhood education, entrepreneurial training with necessary support, good-quality education for all along with a productive and globally competitive economy are vital. At the same time, the situation of children needs dire attention as many of them face high levels of abuse, neglect, and various forms of exploitation and violence.

In the meanwhile, social-protection programmes such as an improved PATH with wider coverage have to be funded and managed consistent with human dignity and self-esteem. The recipients of the benefits should also be encouraged through formal programming to move from welfare into productive self-employment, or into decent jobs. The poor must also take responsibility for themselves by choosing to break out of the cycle of poverty, crime, and violence. They must expect better and demand better. This includes responsible family planning. Parents must exercise responsible parenting.

Poverty reduction and productive economic growth are everybody's responsibility. Creating a "Jamaica, the place of choice to live, work, raise families, and do business" is a task for all. Social justice and self-responsibility will be critical in fulfilling the motto of "Out of Many, One People".

Aldrie Henry-Lee Phd is senior fellow at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies.