By Raffique Shah
October 22, 2006
Two years ago a report from some UN agency stated that 300,000 people in Trinidad and Tobago lived “on less than US$1 a day”. Today, with oil dollars gushing through the country, we have managed to lower this number to, I think, 170,000 paupers. When I read statistics like these I vigorously shake my head, trying to figure out if I am living in T&T or on some other planet. Although I cannot claim to know every district in the country, I try to figure out how these highly paid experts come up with their numbers when I don’t see evidence of such indigence.
Let me explain. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I chose to live not in any exclusive community. I grew up in several ordinary villages among ordinary people, and my boyhood friends come from this milieu. As I write this column, I look through one set of windows and see a squatters’ settlement with some sheep grazing in the foreground. Through another window I see my neighbours, some of whom live in wooden houses (like I did until a few years ago), cleaning their premises in preparation for Divali and Eid. When I went to Danny’s parlour to buy my daily newspapers earlier this morning, as I do most days, I interacted with “de fellas” liming at the Claxton Bay junction, most of them young people who feel free to hail me out, to discuss with me the hot topic of the day or any problems they may have.
I need add that within a one-mile radius of my home there are several other squatters’ settlements, one of them being on the notorious “train line”. I am also very familiar with many farming districts in Central and South Trinidad, and up to a decade ago I used to be able to drive my vehicle up John John and sit by the roadside liming with another set of “fellas”.
I shall not tempt fate by doing that now, sadly so, since I used to enjoy interacting with the people of Laventille and Morvant much the way I did with those from Barrackpore and San Francique. So I have established my bona fides as a “rootsman”, if ever there was doubt.
Among all these people I know, I cannot think of one who lives on less than US$1 a day! Think about it: that’s the equivalent of TT$6, which is well below what any piper-worth-his-coke skims off the unsuspecting, or any vagrant-worth-his-rags would make in a day. If I multiply this number by, say, five, the average size of families, it amounts to $30 a day. Again, I can think of few families that live on less than that sum. Hell, even our pensioners and those who live on social security are given more than that. I am sure that there are some people who live in abject poverty, who may not know what a $20 bill looks like. But 170,000 such paupers? Gimme a break.
Let me hasten to add that the UN numbers, spouted so easily by those who would have our country look like Haiti, do not define the true poverty line. Anyone earning less than $3,000 a month would be under serious stress to survive as inflation puts even basic foods beyond their reach. In the highly-touted service sector, which employs tens of thousands of mainly young people, and in niches like the security business and the retail sector, the prescribed minimum wage is taken to mean the maximum paid to the working poor. So while I challenge the UN statistics, I also know that poverty exists, and that it remains a hell in which maybe one-third our population have to grapple with.
The more pertinent question is this: is it that we live in a poverty stricken society, or is it not that rampant consumerism has driven many into a hell of their own making?
Based on a current advertisement by TSTT, that company has sold one million mobile phones. Almost every man, woman, child and dog can now boast like Learie: “Call mih on mih cell, baby!” Recently, when some issue of Government misspending was televised, one person who condemned it, saying he could use the money, was wearing “bling” that could blind you. Every other young person you try to converse with is inaccessible: plugged in his ears are speakers from an MP3 player. As for vehicles, it’s only those who refuse to place “ah ride” as priority who are without one. Figures show we have more than 300,000 vehicles on our roads.
So tell me, do you really believe those UN figures that make us look like Haiti? What we need to address, more so now that we have the means to do it, is underemployment, a root cause of people living on the brink. We also need to reverse wild consumerism that will reduce us, much like in the USA, to a people steeped in debt.