“Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.”
These words of Nelson Mandela should resonate as we approach our upcoming budget debate. A national budget is more than an economic forecast; it is a declaration about how we wish to look after our people’s needs. It is the most reliable indicator of what we care for.
Prof Rhoda Reddock recently lamented, “What shocked me—the lockdown wasn’t even two weeks in, and people were already starving, already without food. People didn’t have one month’s salary put aside so they could continue eating... you have to treat people decently and give everyone a chance.” (Express, July 2021)
The reality? Three in four of our households do not have emergency funds. Half of our households perceive that they are worse off, with getting ill their most significant fear. Every cent matters as they stretch their dollars. For many young people, the rent eats first. (MFO Consumer Economic Sentiment Report, 2021.)
Yet, there is the persistent, misguided, circular argument that poor people are lazy and that their laziness makes them poor. This view is supported by neither facts nor experience. It is a convenient crutch to avoid facing reality about economic inequity. Opportunities, without availability and access, equal zilch. The platitude, “get a job and take yourself out of poverty” sounds good, but discounts the backbreaking work that many do without any hope of improving their or their children’s life chances.
This budget will demonstrate how we plan to resolve the tension in words spoken at the launch of the Recovery Team. Acknowledging that Covid-19 had unmasked the inequalities at the economic and societal level, The Prime Minister had added, “Throwing borrowed billions of dollars into unproductive subsidies, increased social welfare, increased pensions and massive grants is an unsustainable approach which will further wreck the economy and damage any chance we have of balancing the national budget in the foreseeable future.”
Looking after the poor in our society is not merely being compassionate; it is a good investment. It protects our democracy. People without hope are fodder for rabble-rousers, who prey on their sense of hurt and alienation.
The great dream—work hard and prosper—built our once-solid middle class. Now, there is the crushing of wages where publicly listed companies pay barely above minimum wage, even as their executives reap stock options and large bonuses. Contract labour is the norm as companies duck out of paying NIS and Government taxes, deeming workers to be independent contractors. Contractors cannot access long-term loans and therefore, cannot own a home.
In 2009, then Central Bank Governor, Jwala Rambarran drew attention to the over-107,000 unfilled Housing Development Corporation (HDC) applications. The median price increase for a three-bedroom house (with land) had tripled between 1993 and 2003. In 1993, such a home cost $237,000 but now fetches an estimated $1.3 million. Who is lazy when graduate teachers cannot afford a house?
The wait times in our hospitals are legendary. A report commissioned by the then SWRHA CEO showed that each morning found “an average of 20 over-flow patients... awaiting beds”. Waiting times for operations, clinic appointments or specialist treatment are measured in “months to years”. Emergency room waiting times were “unpredictable”, but were as long as 12 hours. (Newsday, August 2019.) What does this do to the wages and productivity of those who wait?
Our education system is on its back. How do all our female workers return to their jobs? Who would look after their children? Daycare arrangements are precarious. Who can afford to pay, and do the caregivers earn enough to sustain themselves? How does this impact on our women affect productivity?
Job automation has changed our labour market composition, resulting in more money for the top, but wages that cannot sustain life for the many at the bottom. When we deliberately privatised health and policing along with schooling, what did we expect? Sheer unmitigated, arrogant disrespect for the poor is what emerged. We have lost our sense of morality.
This situation has a knock-on effect on the country’s ability to compete. With the Covid-related debt, the Government cannot provide the needed public goods, while the wealthy refuse to pay their taxes, seeking further concessions. They still promote the debunked “trickle-down” theory about economic development. The Government continues to embark on projects of questionable value. At the same time, Minister Allyson West quotes an unpaid $11 billion in taxes, pointing out that we pay less tax than Barbados (22.2 per cent versus 31.8 per cent of GDP). The poor man with his tiny house is the shield used to avoid paying property taxes on the vast precious real estate portfolios. Shameless.
How do we kick-start the economy and balance the scales of justice? Hopefully Minister Imbert knows the answer.