The present government – which has been in control for most of the post-internal self-government years and after four years at the helm this time round – has suddenly realised that poverty is a major social problem in Barbados. As the old people used to say, it is better late than never – even if we are talking about a nation that pats itself on the shoulder repeatedly telling the world how developed it now is and about its 99 per cent literacy and is prepared to roll out the methodologically flawed UN Human Index report as evidence. Both fictions, of course, but why allow such facts, with their brutish, painful reality, to get in the way of a good story.
The real scandal of post-independence Barbados is the recent government’s admission that nearly 20 per cent of Barbadians (19.3 per cent) are living on annual incomes below $7861, in other words, abject poverty. In real terms, that means over 50000 Barbadians are living on about $150 a week, with the likely figure much higher, if we were to include those who are two pay days away from losing their homes. We can be certain that most of the official poor will be the elderly, young unemployed, single parents, the disabled and people with mental problems. Further, with inflation running at about 12 per cent, VAT on food, clothes, and other essentials, the people who can least afford it are paying a high price for government manipulation of the inflation numbers.
And, in addition, when it is considered that poorer people spend a higher ratio of their incomes on food, the escalating food price inflation is coming down more heavily on those 50000 people. These details have been revealed by an official study, the Country Assessment of Living Conditions. Having not seen the full report, it is difficult to comment on its methodology. But, if newspaper reports are correct, there are issues in the sociology and economics of poverty that have not been mentioned and some that have been overplayed. But, given that we have had a Poverty Alleviation Bureau for over a decade, and that this government has been in power for four years as mentioned, it is a bit late to talk about ‘strategies’ for the alleviation of poverty as the minister has proposed. More particularly, since the government and policymakers appear not to understand the nature of poverty, how then can they bring about ‘strategies’ to alleviate this social burden? It appears as if the methodology used could have come straight out of some American or British think-tank or university with all the inherent biases. Three in particular stand out: education, crime and health. The greatest lever for pulling people out of poverty globally is education, and we know governments – both BLP and DLP – have failed to tackle this issue adequately since independence.
With 70 per cent of school leavers failing to get five or more CXCs with decent grades, in any other country this would have been seen as a crisis. It is a failure oaf our educational system, and of teachers as professionals. However, in Barbados it is business as usual. There are two reasons for this. The 30 per cent who leave school with fairly decent qualifications are the sons and daughters of the professional and middle classes, so this is no problem for them. Further, because the state funds their education, from primary to university, the very poor who can barely read and write are funding the education of these people, who, when they become lawyers and doctors, over-charge these very poor people, their clients. This is an issue of social justice which, as a nation, we remain silent about. Education is not only the key determinant of future success, it also says a lot about the social faultlines in society.
In a society of under 300000 people, we find private schools for people of different religions and ethnicities, from nursery to advanced level. Whether we like it or not, the message this sends out to these children and young people is that they are different, exceptional, better than the majority of those attending public schools. And to the poor children, that they are failures, not up to scratch, one of life’s losers. This perception of their place in the wider society follows them in to adult life explanation and colours the way they interact with other Barbadians.
Poverty and Health:
By far the greatest impact of poverty is on health. The poor are born with numerous physical and neurological disadvantages. They are more likely to die at birth, are shorter, suffer brain damage, which follows them through life as they head for an early grave. Then, as they progress on this journey, these disadvantages are added to: poor nutrition, more diseases, common infectious diseases become killers – tuberculosis, diarrhoea, dengue fever, and so on. And, on top of all that, they are usually too poor to get proper treatment or to access the highly skilled, but expensive, consultants and other specialists.
Poverty and Education:
As has been mentioned, it is generally conceded that the quickest and most effective route out of poverty is education and not hoping to win the lottery or become an international pop star. And the people in the frontline of leading future generations to this Holy Grail are teachers – professional teachers, with a sense of mission and purpose and of general responsibility, not those who only think of themselves and their pay packets. As a nation, we must decide how much of our already small taxation pot we are prepared to spend on education; and, having decided to spend seven to eight per cent of GDP, as at present, how are going to grow that and, more importantly, how we are going to divide up that money.
Are we going to invest principally in nursery and primary education, teaching toddlers to be bilingual and to be highly competent at mathematics and computerisation? Or are we going to make the investment at the primary and secondary levels in all-ability classes, allowing the bright children to become bored and mischievous, while the entire class ‘progresses’ at the speed of the weakest? Or, are we going to concentrate our spend on the university and other higher education institutions and bursaries and scholarships for a chosen few, many of whom are already well off?
Education policy is just another aspect of the conversation on poverty and opportunities we need to have as a nation.
Analysis and Conclusion:
In the final analysis, if government is serious about the alleviation of poverty, the ministers and civil servants do not have to go far since Barbados is a society that emerged from chattel slavery two hundred years ago, that is within the memory of our great grand parents. We know about poverty; we also know about the poverty of ideas, which is the real problem crippling Barbados. We know of those in their big homes, but empty stomachs and cupboards; of those who go out to work everyday, but can just about pay their bills; of those who have a reasonable standard of living, but still compare themselves with their friends and neighbours. Had the government formulated a progressive fiscal restructuring programme, the debate about the alleviation of poverty would be clearer and more instructive.
First, and obviously, to impose a sales tax on basic food stuff is to tax the poor heaviest; to impose a stringent sales tax on school books and pens is to tax knowledge and education. We cannot then talk about the place of education in our national culture when we tax it at every stage. In social policy terms, we cannot have underperforming teachers, who produce uneducated school leavers, then wonder why we are a nation in decline.
While the middle classes can pay for private tutors for their children and send them off to Canada, the US and Britain to be educated, the poor have to settle for second-rate secondary schools. With a education spend of about seven to eight per cent of GDP, government should commit itself to gradually increasing this to at a minimum 12 per cent by 2015. There should be breakfast clubs in every school so that the poorest start the morning as nourished as the middle classes. We should form homework clubs, so that poor children could get out of over-crowded homes to study in the peace and quiet of school buildings or libraries. Like everything about social policymaking, there is a down side to this poverty trap, and that is crime.
There is a very high correlation between educational failure, poverty, unemployment and the epidemiology of crime. People who are illiterate or sub-literate are more highly represented among the prison populations in North America and Europe than those with college degrees. As Wilkinson and Pickett (The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, 2010) have shown, the more equal a society the lower the level of crime. The two authors have given good examples. In the US, the prison population rate is about twenty times that of Greece, at over two million, with most societies having an average of between 50 and 150 prisoners to 100000 of population. This means, at its most extreme, Barbados, with a population of about 300000 should have a prison population of about 450. In fact, Barbados has a prison population of over 1000, one in every three hundred of the population behind bars – one of the highest in the civilised world. We have built a new prison at over $700m, without a chapel or any facilities for rehabilitating offenders; we have a criminal justice system that jails people as a first defence, with people on remand i.e. unconvicted, for up to seven years; we are simply warehousing young difficult people.
It is no coincidence that the countries with the highest income inequality (the US and Singapore) also have the highest relative prison populations. And, conversely, the countries with the lowest inequalities (Japan, Finland, Norway and Sweden) also tend to have the lowest relative prison populations. Although there are also one or two countries that break this trend, for example Greece, which has a high income disparity, but tends to jail relatively fewer of its population, the principle stands. Downes and Hansen (Welfare and Punishment – The relationship between welfare spending imprisonment, 2006) also found parallels between high welfare spending as a ratio of GDP and low imprisonment rates.This study confirmed the earlier one by Beckett and Western (Governing Social Marginality: Welfare, Incarceration and the Transformation of State Policy, Punishment and Society, vol3, pages 43-59), which had similar results. In a society in which so many people masquerade as criminologists, it is still difficult to find any serious studies of the rate of imprisonment and low education in Barbados, or even the wider English-speaking Caribbean. Even so, none of this is new, we have been going through it for ages. What is new and disappointing is that the new Barbadian middle class has adopted a position hostile to their fellow Barbadians, who just happen to be poor and less formally educated (many of the middle classes and professionals are often not as bright as they think they are). Social mobility and progress must be the key objectives of an independent Barbados and some of us, a bit long in the tooth, have not yet seen these much talked about developments on a collective scale. A few individuals, who have had enormous state backing to add to their inherent talents, have done well. So what?
As a society we have got to decide if we are going to spread the advantages of a quality education and other social advantages, or restrict them to a small elite – the so-called talented tenth. Are we going to spend what little money we have on post-graduate education for a few, or in good secondary education for the many? These are debates we should have had at the dawn of independence, not nonsense about ‘free’ education. As anyone who has done economics 101 will tell you, education in Barbados is not free, no matter what some people may say. It is paid for by taxpayers.
In the end, the answer is rooted deep in the sociology of our collective emotions, which includes how mob behaviour is formed. I will give an example: there is an economic myth, encouraged by Marion Williams, when she was governor of the central bank, that Barbados is a developed nation. Commonsense, such as the high level of abject poverty, would show this is a bad joke. But there are people, many of them among the formal and informal poor, who still find it convenient boasting about the attractions of Barbados for the global elite and as a justification for ‘investing’ Bds$60m in that white elephant called Four Seasons, rather than spend it on pulling people out of poverty, to give but one example of collective delusion. It also affects nations. Take India, one of the most dynamic economies in the world, but with only 75 per cent of the population being literate, below the global figure of 84 per cent, which means, to point out the obvious, 25 per cent of Indians are illiterate. Most of India’s progress is driven by the information and communication sector, which employs only 0.2 per cent of its working population. Despite all this, India has the luxury of a £2bn nuclear programme. This is immoral.
Nations have to make choices, just as individuals and families do, and this may mean spreading national revenue to as many people as possible, or just concentrating on a small elite – whether chosen by its social connections or through merit. Penalising the poor is often justified in social policy and given intellectual cover by a few mavericks academics. Take the hideous policy, introduced by Bill Clinton, of three strikes, as a way of removing poor people from the streets of America, or the savage way police and the paramilitary are raiding the favelas in Brazil in preparation for the World Cup and Olympics; or in Britain where young black boys are harassed daily as members of so-called gangs, when they are really the ones bearing the full weight of Britain’s economic problems.
There is also the pure economics of crime and incarceration: from the salaries and other costs for police officers, the courts and court officials, prisons, unemployment and social benefits, the growing army of private police and the daily haranguing of people that crime is on the rise therefore the need for more staff. In fact, all over the world, crime is falling. As a society we have to decide if the urge for revenge is so powerful that we are prepared to pay such a high price to lock up a few over-aggressive young people – mainly men. Why are we so afraid of our own sons? In most societies, social exclusion is based not only on poverty, but more so on ethnicity and race. The myth is that as a nation we are very keen on education and value it highly. The reality, however, is totally different.
Barbados has got a debate it must have and fast.