By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 11, 2021
Karen Tesheira, in an insightful presentation on the budget 2022 statement, said, “A budget is far more than a number of figures cobbled together. It speaks to the government priorities, its values, its vision and its imperatives—in other words, its strategic plan for its citizenry.”
She titled her remarks “Government for the Rich and Powerful”, and reminded us of one of the main conclusions in the European Bank’s “Economic Inclusion Strategy [EIS]” (2017–2021): “The opening up of economic opportunities to previously under-served social groups is integral to achieving a transition towards sustainable market economies.” (Express, October 6)
Tesheira may have added another observation the European Bank made in its “Executive Summary”. It noted that “well-functioning, sustainable market economies need to deliver fair access to economic opportunity for all, regardless of their circumstances”. Such a statement would have captured the central problem that faces our society today: the exclusion of the poor and disadvantaged from the economy.
As I read the budget statement, all I could think of were the words of the boys on the block when government officials and other economists offered learned dissertations on the worsening effects of unemployment on the society. They shrugged their shoulders and said: “It doesn’t really matter to we anyway, ’cause we ent wukking anyhow.”
This declaration sank home when Colm Imbert declared his Government reduced the rate of VAT “from 15 per cent to 12.5 per cent and also twice increased the Personal Allowance, first from $5,000 per month to $6,000 per month in 2016 and then from $6,000 per month to $7,000 per month in 2021, thus relieving hundreds of thousands of employed persons from the requirement to pay income tax”.
The boys on the block did not need to read the European Bank Report or listen to “Resilience in the Face of a Global Pandemic” (the title of Imbert’s presentation) to know that they are not included in Imbert’s vision of the future, although he included some of the qualities that the European Bank sees as being integral to a well-functioning, sustainable market economy: “competitive, well-governed, green, inclusive, resilient and integrated”.
Imbert also told us of the changes the Government made in the banking sector “to allow for relaxed and simplified know-your-customer (KYC) rules to make opening a bank account easier for individuals whom traditional requirements might otherwise exclude”. However, he said nothing about teaching financial literacy to the excluded groups or the youths, beginning at primary school.
Financial literacy, a programme that former Central Bank governor Ewart Williams initiated more than a decade ago, never featured in the debate. I am not even sure that it made it to the schools’ curriculum. Such education is much more important for today’s youth and disenfranchised people. US-based Italian economist Annamarie Lusardi, a world expert on financial literacy, tells us: “Younger people are facing a much more complicated financial situation than their parents… The need for widespread education on how to save and manage money is greater than ever… The explosion of online day trading and cryptocurrency speculation has meant that the young are more vulnerable to immolating their savings, or even getting into trading-related debt, than ever before.” (Financial Times, October 7)
I welcomed the Government’s “infrastructural projects”, which bode well for the society. However, I looked in vain for any mention of the initiation of any substantial economic project in places like Morvant, Sea Lots or Laventille. All I saw was the economic activity taking place in Couva, but nothing for those black disadvantaged communities throughout the country. I also wondered what happened to the Community Recovery Programme for underprivileged areas that the Prime Minister appointed to bring relief to those communities.
The improvement of sporting facilities and the continued funding of an enhanced “Elite Athlete Assistance Programme” are worthwhile endeavours. What I didn’t hear was the organisation/mobilisation of sports and athletic activities that engaged the energies of whole communities. I thought that was Darryl Smith’s function when he became the minister of sport. However, without the complete engagement and mobilisation of the people in the community, we will go nowhere in the sports world, as the Jamaican High School sports meetings have demonstrated.
I fondly remember 1996 when Keith Rowley drew enthusiastically on William Julius Wilson’s magnificent book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, as he challenged Patrick Manning for the leadership of the PNM. Wilson argued: “The consequences of high neighbourhood joblessness are more devastating than those of high neighbourhood poverty. A neighbourhood in which people are poor but employed is different from a neighbourhood in which people are poor and jobless. Many of today’s problems in the inner-city ghetto neighbourhoods—crime, family, dissolution, welfare, low levels of social organisation, and so on—are fundamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work.”
We believed then that productive work was important for the liberation of our people. The nature of work has changed over the last two decades, but productive work is still fundamental to the advancement of the poor and disadvantaged. I wish I had seen an emphasis of this in the budget speech.
Imbert’s budget statement 2022 said little about the challenges the disadvantaged and the unemployed face today. I wish that he had talked a bit more about how his Government is assisting our citizens to become more responsible people.
I wonder how many youths and disadvantaged people listened to Imbert’s three-and-a-half-hour speech. Is that how one rolls in the digital age?
Other questions come to mind as we think about the budget presentation: did the Government do a good job with regards to the pandemic? Do we feel safer in our homes? Are we more optimistic about our future?