Tuesday, April 16, 2024

FIRING LINE: Erosion of economic gains

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I am not sure what is to happen to the poor and the middle class in Barbados. At every turn it would appear that this Government intends to make sure that it erodes all of the social and economic gains made by and on the behalf of these groups.

On the one hand, it is stripping the middle class of every cent of its spending power and on the other, its spending cuts are ensuring that the quality and quantity of services given to the poor are at the most basic and at a bare minimum.

The majority of the Government’s enunciated revenue and cost-cutting measures have made the poor and the middle class the burden bearers of its attempts to address the fiscal mess facing this country. I believe that we continue to assume that we have a middle class and a poor that are perhaps more financially secure than they actually are.

We look at the number of cars on the road and the cable television antennas on houses and make assumptions about how people are living but often we do not think about what people owe for them and what they are doing to get them.

These are two very important considerations in this country. As this Government struggles to balance its books there is no evidence to suggest that it understands the lived social impact of its policies.

I tip my hat to the Minister of Finance Christopher Sinckler for having the cahoonas to come on national television and suggest to an overtaxed population that is awaiting further austerity measures from his Government that they will perhaps have to receive interest bearing certificates in lieu of tax refunds in cash.

It’s like me going to the supermarket picking up my goods, paying for them, going to the cashier who takes my money and then tells me there is no change available and would I take an IOU that would allow me buy two extra pack of biscuits the next time I come. What do they know about what I have to do with the money that is rightly mine? (Wait, hold on, can I issue the Government an IOU for my solid waste tax?)

For the Minister, his solution would seem quite logical in the face of an urgent cash-flow problem; he creates a fix, we like it or lump it but in the end he has addressed what he has seen as the primary problem. Clearly, he and his other ministerial colleagues have forgotten what it is like to plan for one’s tax returns; the debts, the family vacations and other important things that the funds are used for.

The problem in most cases is not the policy or the measure but how it is applied. There is no nuanced thinking through, there is no careful thought about how to mitigate impact. For some, the couple of hundreds of dollars is neither here nor there and for those, an option could be given to have certificates.

For others, it makes a significant difference to their households and in those cases a cash refund should be immediately provided. Yes, it will call for some work but after all we are paying taxes to employ the best and brightest in the Ministry of Finance.

Our taxes should at least provide for some creative thinking through. Instead, we go for the quick fix. It is a measure like this that suggests to me that this Government has lost touch with the society that it has been elected to lead.

However, for most of us with a job and a daily pay cheque life is fairly rosy. This affords us options the poor and the vulnerable, including the elderly, do not have. I cringe daily at what is happening to our social services. It is clear that budget cuts are now imperilling the delivery of essential services to vulnerable users.

There is a level of intolerance and impatience creeping into the conversations of people charged to lead cash-strapped social agencies, which suggests that they are losing sight of the fact that their clientele is special.

It seems more and more the conversations are about the resources that are needed and less and less about how to offer quality care which respects the dignity of the users in the context of declining resources.

If we have a Barbados where we fail to offer the best quality service and care to the most vulnerable, then it becomes a Barbados that should be unrecognisable to most of us.

The troubling stories emerging from our health-care system suggests that something is going terribly wrong. People will turn up at the Accident and Emergency (A&E) and wait 48 hours if they have to because in many cases they have no other choice. People will call the ambulance service because they do not have money for a taxi or do not feel they have other options. Who are those most using these services. Can I take a wild guess?

While it is true that there might be a degree of ignorance and even in some cases a lack of consideration about how they use the services, I would have to be convinced that the majority of users are people with other immediately available options. Sometimes investing in a good education campaign, deploying a patient advocate or just communicating with people can do a lot to change behaviour.

I fear this Barbados that I see emerging, a political leadership divorced from its people, a social system so broken from scarcity that it is forgetting its underlying ethos and a middle class and poor that is being pushed to the brink. May the Lord help us all.

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