Plight of the working poor

By Raffique Shah
August 08, 2018

Raffique ShahWhereas the poor in the society are very visible, tens of thousands of adults who can best be described as the “working poor” remain largely invisible, barely surviving the purgatory-like existence the majority of them are condemned to live in for their life spans.

While there are entire ministries and government agencies established to address poverty through multi-pronged programmes, hardly anyone spares a thought for the plight of the working poor, who would probably be best categorised as the wretched of the earth, to borrow a term coined by Martinique-born intellectual Frantz Fanon.

Last week, I was chatting with a young woman, likely in her mid-40s, whom I have known for many years. She holds what can be perceived to be a decent job, has been a stable, productive worker (as far as I know), but who, through unfortunate circumstances, was cast in the role of sole breadwinner in her household of three. After tax and other deductions, she takes home just around $7,000 per month.

“I can barely make ends meet,” she told me. “I live from pay-cheque to pay-cheque, and often I have to borrow money before month-end to pay for unplanned expenses. It’s tough out here.”

Now, if you see her commuting to and from work, or watch her anywhere in public, you would never believe the trauma she must endure in her day-to-day existence. You would assume she’s a successful middle class woman who holds a good job and enjoys a happy life.

When I thought about her plight, I realised that tens of thousands of lower middle-income workers, quite possibly 200,000 or so—teachers, public servants, police officers, soldiers, ordinary employees in banks and other financial institutions, media workers, administrative staff in manufacturing and commerce, and many more who we might think are happily employed, but who fall in this category.

People in the upper-middle-income bracket and above whose take-home pay is at least $20,000 per month, can hardly imagine what life must be like for those trapped in the twilight zone, above the poverty line but below ceiling of comfortable living.

And I’m referring to persons who have sound education at the secondary school level, often a tertiary-level degree or diploma, are as productive and diligent as is possible, responsible in terms of size of their families, and who do not blow their meager incomes on trivial pursuits or common vices.

Most of the working poor start their days at no later than 4 a.m. since, even if they own vehicles, they must be on the traffic-clogged roads by 5 a.m. in order to be at their desks or stations by 8 a.m. On afternoons, when they leave work at 4 p.m. they face another traffic ordeal. If they have children, the demands on their time are multiplied several times.

With food, rent/mortgage, day care, transportation, utility bills and other expenses whittling down their monthly incomes (in households that have two working adults), how can they hope to save a little something that all of us were taught to do by our parents? Like the person whose plight prompted me to write this column, they live in a netherworld that lies between the “haves” and the “have-nots” where no one notices them and few government programmes mitigate their misery.

Sure they enjoy income tax exemptions on the first $6,000 of their monthly incomes. But so do the elites who earn $100,000 per month or more. And yes, they qualify for low interest mortgages and HDC housing units—if they ever get to the front of the miles-long queues, or better still if they know persons of influence.

The politicians will also point to heavily subsidised utilities, fuels, public transport (such as it is, including the inter-islands services and water taxis) and more. But these billion-dollar State-funding benefit the wealthy more than the poor and the working poor as the politicians are well aware.

Improved salaries will help, but their impact is invariably negated by increased prices of goods and services. For the working poor to enjoy their just dues requires creative policies and strategies formulated by government, employers and labour, as well as the affected workers themselves who must have thoughts on what measures might mitigate their pitiful plight.

I have previously addressed one aspect of the economic downturn that has negatively impacted mostly middle-income workers who invested in their first homes, but have been retrenched (Mittal steel workers, for example) or otherwise dislocated.

Having witnessed the disaster of the recession in the 1980s—hundreds, maybe thousands of houses seized by the banks or abandoned by owners who could not meet their mortgage payments—we do not want a repeat of that horror. It benefits no one, not even the banks.

I suggested that Government, through the Home Mortgage Bank or some similar institution, place a moratorium of maybe up to three years on payments even as the families occupy the homes. The breadwinners should find employment during that time, and the properties are not left to deteriorate.

Such policy may cost Government a few billion dollars, all recoverable, and it saves families from fragmentation or worse.

Unprecedented, you say? A bad idea?

Hey, successive governments pumped $23 billion into CLICO and CL Financial nine years ago. To date, they have recovered only $8 billion. No interest was charged and we are still uncertain of the outcome of this issue. And you, Mr Politician, Mr Economist, are telling me I’m crazy for suggesting help to keep the roofs over the heads of a few hard-working citizens?

Take a hike!

I rest my case.

3 thoughts on “Plight of the working poor”

  1. Lt Shah. Your article is timely and most relevant. I have marveled at the UNC and now the PNM who gives a husband and wife tax free pension grant of $7,000.00 tax free(3500×2) per month plus all the other seniors perks but do not think of the man who has two and more children who is toiling away to keep them fed, sheltered and clothed. He has to struggle every month to live. Those pensioners did not save during their productive days for their old age. On fact the NIS pensioners are considered less than public pensioners. We get $3,000.00, which is less. Some lived a reckless wonton life drank, feted, wasted and now the people have to look after them. The now productive poor worker have to work hard to feed his children and to also give to these so called pensioners. Every month their children are waiting to partake of their parents or grandparents pension grants. I have seen people who are getting pension grants running small businesses, taxis, working, CEPEP, URP etc and collecting the $3,500.00 per month.
    First of all every citizen working and those on pension grants should submit a tax return to declare their annual income. This information should be used to give the working poor a supplement to live a decent life. Trinidad had such a high level of tax income that all citizens should have a decent standard of living. But as you and I know their are crooked politicians and business people who have stolen the wealth of the people of Trinidad. Check out the fiasco which is going on with Afra Raymond who is have a hard time getting information on the CLICO fiasco even with the courts direction the government to disclose that information. The politicians (both UNC and PNM) are covering up for their friends and families.
    You are right to open the discussion on the working poor of this blessed country.

  2. What is visible is seeing some people (Virginia, US) collecting pensions from good old T&T and having a grand life style, hopping on planes and enjoying the fetes in T&T. The strange thing quite a lot of them are small islanders and Guyanese. Contrast that to a born and bred lady in T&T walking in the hot sun (Cumuto) with her 1 yr. old child in arms going to the corner shop to get some basics in food supply. Not sure if that is credit or cash but I did give the child something to hold in God’s name.

  3. This is why corruption and bribery will always be integral mechanisms for supplementing incomes. It is why corruption has become culturally ingrained. It is also why crime is becoming an economic issue.

    Investigate the reasons for the high cost of utilities, consumer goods, food and services.

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