I love the poor more
Martin Henry, Gleaner Writer
Poverty is on the rise in the United States. The census bureau there is reporting that in 2009 the poverty level climbed to its highest level since the 1960s, with one in every seven American living in poverty.
But what they mean by poverty is substantially different from what we mean. The census bureau there officially defines poverty as any family of four living on less than US$ 21,954 per year. That's about J$1.9 million!
On this United States measure of poverty, the vast majority of working Jamaicans are poor. And even when all possible downward adjustments are made, the majority of the population is still poor.
Long before seeing the US poverty data which was just released last week, I publicly stated on a media programme that households surviving on under J$2 million per year must be reasonably considered as living in poverty. People gasped, but quickly revived to follow the logic of the assertion.
If being out of poverty means being able to afford decent shelter, keeping adequate supplies of nutritious food on the table, and meeting the living expenses of utilities, transportation, school supplies, health care, and so on, which is what the Americans mean, then there is no question that the family of two police constables with a combined income of under $2 million is living in poverty.
Just can't afford mortgage
A year or so ago, the National Housing Trust was advising that 80 per cent of its contributors could not afford its cheapest mortgages. And the Ministry of Housing was running estimates that some 900,000 persons, or a third of the population, were living as squatters. The majority of those who are formally renting or purchasing shelter by mortgage are exceeding the international recommendation that no more than 30 per cent of income should go to shelter.
As was to be expected, the poor did not escape Portia Simpson Miller's fond attention in her presidential address to the 72nd annual conference of the People's National Party. With the party just three years out of office, after the longest stint in government, she asked the faithful, mostly poor, jammed into the National Arena as she taunted Golding and his Government, "Do you remember who said on the campaign trail, 'Jamaica is too rich to be so poor'?"
The political parties and their leaders are vying to love the poor more. By the 'poor' they mostly mean those who are largely outside the formal economy, the hustling, unemployed or marginally employed, at the very bottom of the system. But as we have seen, even among those who are heading off to some job every morning, the majority of them are poor. It is time for poor people to understand that the politics of the country and the rotten governance it has produced is to a large extent responsible for their condition.
The politicians here love the poor so much that they have kept the majority of the population in quite unnecessary poverty. Golding is right. Jamaica is too rich for so many of her people to be so poor.
The current leaders of the two political parties which have formed governments in alternation since Universal Adult Suffrage, and internal Self-Government in 1944, are presiding over laboratories of poverty creation and poverty maintenance. South West St. Andrew is one of the poorest and most-distressed patches of Jamaica after over 30 years of Portia rule.
There are few other places in this country where the PNP leader's words at last Sunday's public session of the 72nd annual conference of the party are more applicable: "Sadly, today, distress, depression, confusion, frustration are words that describe the daily experience of too many of our Jamaican brothers and sisters." Sadly, too, the current condition of SW St Andrew is not merely a failure of development, but is a clear deterioration of development which had already taken place.
And as the people of Western Kingston are now belatedly discovering, 40 years of paternalistic political clientelism and many years of don rule, which pockets of them would die for, have not really brought them independence or an escape from poverty. With the 'unauthorised extraction of electricity' now cut off and regularisation now nicely but firmly demanded by the supplier, the people are now bawling "whey wi fi tek pay light bill?"
It is worth pointing out that the leaders' poverty-stricken constituencies are in the heart of the English-speaking Caribbean's largest city and its traditional commercial hub.
So what is to be done to reverse the state of poverty in the nation that Golding and his Government are failing to undertake boldly, and which the preceding administration, and the one before that, and the one before that ... have all failed to do?
We know that throwing money at poverty, providing welfare handouts and 'crash programme' work for the poor, do not cure poverty. And, as the Americans are finding out, not even affirmative action in favour of historically disadvantaged groups cures poverty. African Americans, despite 40 odd years of affirmative action, are still holding their place at the bottom of the poverty ranking.
We know with absolute certainty that the maintenance of law and order will disproportionately benefit the poor. Crime and violence disproportionately hurts the poor. And the Comrade leader reminded us in her hope speech that, "It is an established fact that crime robs us of about seven per cent of GDP." The contribution of politics to crime, violence and lawlessness has been a contribution to poverty. When we leave town and go to country, uncontrolled praedial larceny is crippling agricultural potential.
The sins of economic mismanagement, much of it undertaken in the name of delivering 'benefits' to the poor, have created results which disproportionately hurt the poor. This massive debt burden disproportionately hurts the poor. The nearly 90-fold devaluation of the Jamaican dollar, since its inception in 1969 on parity with the US dollar, has disproportionately robbed the poor of spending power. Economists describe inflation as the cruellest hidden tax, the loss of buying power of money, as government debases the currency by 'printing' money. The Jamaican poor, and their potential of escaping poverty, have been ravished by inflation over the years.
One of the country's most thoughtful trade unionists, Lloyd Goodleigh, who is now president of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions (JCTU), told the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) of Parliament last Wednesday that public-sector transformation and programmes for economic growth will not work without labour-market reform.
Aided and abetted by the trade unions, governments, ostensibly for love of the poor, have artificially maintained, and, indeed expanded, unproductive and low-skilled jobs in the public-sector side of the economy, distorting the whole economy and soaking the prospects of the poor for escaping poverty through engagement in a modernising and growing economy.
Corruption, with which governments of Jamaica have been riddled, disproportionately hurts the poor. The World Bank and other multilaterals are busy documenting the GDP and development costs of corruption and should send the data to Portia for her next speech, and to Bruce too. Jamaica has paid a horrible price, disproportionately borne by the poor, for political clientelism and the political tribalism which it has bred. The reverse development of garrisonised areas makes this most starkly clear.
More of the poor will escape poverty when they are empowered to seize expanding economic opportunities. Poverty, ultimately, can only be defeated by wealth creation. But despite its investment in education, the most important vehicle out of poverty, and much of it politically done for the poor, about 85 per cent of secondary-school graduates do not earn the examination passes required for further education or for work.
Chronic high interest rates, kept artificially high for decades by government's own economic policy, have disproportionately kept the poor out of the capital market.
But there is another seldom recognised obstacle to capital formation, which is even more serious. This formidable obstacle is land ownership. The government of Jamaica has never found it possible - or desirable - since August 2, 1838, to provide access to land, and to have the land which the poor does own, properly titled.
Without a title, land is dead capital. The 'revolutionary' iMap, which the National Land Agency so proudly launched last week, will quickly show up that the majority of parcels of land in the country, most 'owned' by poor people, are untitled and, therefore, cannot be posted on the system.
Reducing the tax burden on the working poor would be enormously helpful as a stimulus, both for capital formation, through increased savings, and increased consumption which, together, with the other changes would help to stimulate economic growth. A truly bold move in this direction would be to raise the income tax threshold to half the calculated poverty-line income, assuming two incomes per household.
The fallout can be recouped through a wider consumption tax net and through collecting all taxes due, including land taxes from a massive expansion of titling and registration.
When there is good governance in the general national interest, everybody benefits, the poor not least.
It is time poor people, the overwhelming majority of the population, wake up and wise up. Those who really love the poor most will do most to offer good governance under which the poor can seize opportunities, in a stable and predictable economic, political and social environment, for escaping poverty.
Casting crumbs to the poor, with loud proclamations of love for them, is both contemptuous and counter-productive.
Martin Henry is a communications consultant. Feedback may be sent to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.