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 are often told about why people are poor. Speaking for myself, I reject categorically this conclusion. Low wages, a lack of good jobs, the poor quality of education in too many of our schools, a banking system that rips off the “non-rich” (if I can coin a word), the lack of marriageable males in poor, mainly black communities like Laventille, the ongoing discrimination against mainly poor black persons coming from communities like Laventille, the lack of effective government support for institutions like the Family Planning Association (and the key word here is “effective“), all contribute to the tsunami of poverty that is engulfing us.

It used to be that there was a belief that if you got a good education and worked hard that you would benefit from  upward income mobility. Certainly, that is what Eric Williams and his PNM preached (and delivered on) in the late fifties and the sixties. Williams lifted the educational standards of the country and thereby raised the standard of living of hundreds of thousands of our citizenry (at a time when the population was just a little over half a million) … citizens who had never had the opportunity of being able to go to school before. The country lurched forward by leaps and bounds.

But somewhere along the way we lost our focus. New and different problems arose and there was no Williams to deal with them. By the mid to late eighties the economic “flavour” was Reaganism and Thatcherism … ‘trickle down’ economics. ANR Robinson came to power in the late December 1986 and decided that the best way to run the country was to run it like a business; cut salaries and throw people out of work and fix the balance sheet by adopting sound business principles.

In the budget debate in the Senate in 1987 I argued then that while I could see that the proposed solutions of the NAR would balance the country’s books … and they did … that these proposals would cause massive hardship to the poor and economically weak … and they did. I argued then that you simply cannot run a country like a business without causing great hardship to the poor and that the net result of these policies would be that the rich would get richer and the poor would get poorer.

It gives me no satisfaction whatsoever 30 years later to have been proven to be right!

Patrick Manning’s regime continued with the NAR’s economic policies … as has every government since then. The argument that the banks needed to be brought under control was ignored. And so today you have a powerful banking sector that is ripping off the poor in ways that are completely immoral and unfair, but you don’t hear a cat complaining! Today you have a situation where people whose parents had worked hard to lift themselves out of the morass of poverty now see those very same parents slipping inexorably back into the dark abyss of despair. 

We are in a mess. It is a mess of our own making. We pretend that God is a Trini and all is right with our world. We pretend that energy prices will rise to save us again and that the creeping poverty is really the result of personal immaturity and/or irresponsibility and that all would be right if only poor people would know their place, work hard and shut up.

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: if the education system was blown up this afternoon so that absolutely nothing of it remained, would you put back the exact same system or would you put in something different? Only one person has ever told me that he would put the same system back. Everybody else has said that he would put in something different. So, the question remains: why are we tinkering? Where is the ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking that we need to solve our problems?

This essay is really a “crie de couer” for the poor of our country… especially the poorest members of our society. And who are they? Answer: the children! They own nothing and are helpless to do anything that might improve their lives.

We owe it to them to fix the system and come up with the same type of radical thinking that Dr. Williams came up with in the fifties. Problems cannot be fixed with the same level of awareness that created them.

There are solutions. That is the good news. But all of the decision makers in our society today appear to be bound and gagged by traditional thinking and self-interest. There are too many ‘status quos’, and we all know that the slightest suggestion for change always means death to some status quo. And that is the bad news!



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