Fair is fair: Those who can must pay; and those who can't must work
YEAR after year successive governments have fed us the line that the poor and vulnerable are too poor to make sustained financial contributions to Jamaica's development.
As a result, they have drafted tax collection systems that completely overlook the poor. In fact, under the premise of empowering the poor, Governments have spent billions of dollars on countless social welfare programmes and initiatives for their benefit.
The sad truth, however, is that in bending over backwards to 'empower' the poor we have created individuals who have little inclination to alter their social circumstances; simply because being poor in Jamaica has too many fringe benefits.
Consider this, the poor live in areas where they pay no property tax or attendant parish council fees. They live in areas where the abstraction of water and electricity is entrenched and so are required to pay to access them. They have access to free education up to the secondary level, free basic health care, and free money in the form of grants and stipends in the Programme for Advancement Through health and education. Not to mention that they supplement this free money with begging, gambling or participating in the informal economy; the proceeds from which they pay no income tax.
And because they are too poor to pay taxes, politicians craft tax policies that focus on the few battling to stay in the upper and middle/working classes -- Well, those who aren't tax dodgers and evaders. Each time there is a shortfall in the budget or a new bill to be paid it is these two already overburdened groups that are expected to make the financial adjustment to cover it.
Pay-As-You-Earn (PAYE) workers, as most of us know, make up the majority of the middle and working class, and we've heard finance ministers say that the PAYE workers number somewhere in the 300,000 -- but for a generous estimate, let's say that number is 500,000. And let's say that juveniles and the elderly number approximately one million people. If we combine those two figures and subtract the sum from Jamaica's total population of approximately 2.8 million people, we're left with approximately 1.3 million "poor" people.
Trying to finance a national budget on the backs of 500,000 persons, while overlooking 1.2 million others is obviously a recipe for disaster. Yet this has been the approach of successive governments over several decades now. The time has come to bring the "poor" into the net of tax collection as all civilised countries do. My thinking is, if they can't help the Government to raise money because they are too poor to pay, then they must be required to help the Government save money.
There must be some sort of national service that the poor should be required to do that will save the Government money and reduce the dependency on the middle and working class. Naturally, such an initiative will meet resistance. But I don't propose that we implement it in one fell swoop. It should be done gradually to allow people to get used to the idea of giving back to the country as a matter of course.
I believe that a template for this kind of national service initiative already exists in the form of Labour Day. What I propose is that at first we introduce quarterly Labour Days, which undertake projects that will both benefit communities and save the Government money through the use of volunteer labour. If you don't pay taxes, as a result of your poor designation, you are an automatic volunteer. The Government can provide food, drink and entertainment, where necessary, to sweeten the labour, but the task must get done, and should be done well.
Better heads than mine can come up with other suggestions, but the main point remains that a concerted effort must be made to get the poor to contribute towards Jamaica's economic health by helping the country to save money.
Improving Jamaica's economic situation requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. Those who can must pay; and those who can't must work. Nobody should be allowed to sit idly by while a small percentage works to maintain the entire country.
Naysayers will find every reason this suggestion can't work, but consider the alternative -- more of the same. As Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result".
The above is contributed by a Jamaican public servant. Comments: email@example.com