Wednesday, May 30, 2018


Is poverty the result of laziness, immorality and irresponsibility? If people made better choices, worked harder, stayed in school, got married, didn't have children they couldn't afford, spent wisely and saved more, would they escape poverty?

This is essentially the story that we tell ourselves about why people are poor. Looking at the history of our country from the very beginning, but especially from 1956 to date, I reject this conclusion.. Low wages, lack of good jobs, the poor quality of too many schools, a banking system that rips off the "non-rich" (if I can coin a word), the lack of marriageable males in poor, black communities like Laventille, the ongoing discrimination against mainly poor, black males coming from communities like Laventille and Beetham, the lack of effective governmental support for institutions like the Family Planning Association (and please note that the key word here is "effective") all contribute to the tsunami of poverty engulfing us.

It used to be that there was a belief that if you worked hard and got a good education that you would benefit from upward income mobility. Certainly, that is what Eric Williams and his PNM preached in the 1950's and 1960's. And to a large extent he was right. He lifted the educational standards of the country and made education available to a wide swath of the citizenry who had never had the opportunity to go to school before. The country lurched forward by leaps and bounds.

But the problems of the fifties were very different from the problems of the eighties. By the end of the eighties trickle down economics as promoted by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were the order of the day. A.N.R. Robinson's NAR came to power preaching this gospel and changed the economic system in ways that essentially ignored the poor, arguing strongly that allowing a few people to make money would allow them to create jobs ... classic "trickle down" theory.

In the debate on the NARs first budget in 1987 I conceded in the Senate that the NAR's solutions would right the country's perilous economic situation, but I argued that it would be at the expense of the poor who would get poorer and benefit the rich who would get richer. I take no joy in time proving me to be right.

Unfortunately, Patrick Manning continued Robinson's economic policies as has every government since 1991. I argued then that the banks needed to be brought under control, that they were ripping off poor people. Unfortunately, nobody (except the people being ripped off ... but they had no power anyway) bothered to listen.

And so, today here we are: in a mess of our own making and pretending to be surprised. Without saying it out loud, we perpetuate the myth that poverty is a result of personal immaturity and irresponsibility and that all would be right in our world if only poor people  would know their place and work hard.

We continue to tinker with a broken education system that is simply not preparing our children for the challenges of the 21st century. Ask yourself this question and answer it honestly: if we were to blow up the education system this afternoon so that there was absolutely nothing left and we had to start again from scratch would you put back the exact same system tomorrow morning, or would you put back something different? Only one person has ever told me that he would put back the exact same system! So? Why do we simply tinker with the system? Why don't we start to think out of the box" and come up with new ideas?

This essay started out as a "crie de couer" for the poor people of this country. But in writing this I realized ... hey! Wait a minute! Who are the poorest people in this country? And the answer is the children. They own nothing and have no vote or control over their future.

We owe it to them to fix the system and come up with the same type of radical thinking that Williams did in the 1950's. It is a truism that problems cannot be solved with the same kind of awareness that created them in the first place.

There are solutions. That is the good news. But all the decision makers in our society are bound and gagged by traditional thinking and self-interest. And that is the bad news.

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