How will inequality in Jamaica be tackled?

Everton Pryce

Sunday, July 28, 2013

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Following on close to fifty-one years in independence from Britain, the issue of inequality arising from our peculiar configuration of power and power-sharing keeps dominating the political landscape.

Local banks in 2013, reminiscent of life under colonialism, are not interested in lending to small and micro-enterprises, according to opposition spokesperson on transport, works and housing, Karl Samuda, who spoke in parliament last Tuesday.

And before him, Minister of Transport, Housing and Works Omar Davies delivered a brilliant message of honest self-assessment to his parliamentary colleagues about the retention of the burden of inequality in the society through taxation that represents, in my view, the single most far-reaching utterance recorded in our parliament since the PNP returned to power some 19 months ago.

"We are concerned about equity", he is reported as saying in the Sunday Observer of June 23, 2013, in support of the passage of the Revenue Administration Act (RAA), "but as we speak about equity, either in expenditure or collection, let us be honest with ourselves: have we demonstrated equity to those who have been the backbone of this country?"

And as if answering his own question, Davies further declared: "The ordinary people ...are the persons on whom we have placed the greatest burden, and all of us know that" (my emphasis).

Davies was on solid incidence when he spoke, because despite the noticeable and significant advances in our social infrastructure since Independence, the incidents of income inequality and poverty continues to be high.

The level of poverty now stands at 17.5 per cent, down from a high of 28.4 per cent in 1990. At the same time, the Jamaica Survey of Living Conditions for 2010 reveals that the richest 10 per cent of the population receives 34.03 per cent of the country's income, whereas the poorest 10 per cent earns only 1.43 per cent. In other words, the richest people living in Jamaica in the first decade of the 21st century actually earn close to 25 times the income of the poorest households.

And when it comes to paying taxes - which was the focus of Minister Davies' concern - it is the poor of Jamaica that bear the greater share of the burden by paying close to one-fifth of their income in both direct and indirect taxes; while the rich pay only one-third of their income in the same tax brackets.

The domestic workers in the employ of the rich, office cleaners in the private and public sectors, the working-poor in the formal economy, and the plumbers, tailors, bar attendants, market vendors, handcart men and women, and others of their ilk, who are the political majority with minority economic status, pay more than ten times what they earn as income in taxes.

To most of us, these revelations, though important, are hardly shocking, because in today's Jamaica it is as if the responsibility for fairness and equality keeps terrorising our consciousness- despite historical claims by the two main political parties that they have delivered in varying degrees on the promise of equality and material betterment to ordinary Jamaicans in post-independence Jamaica through the implementation of different policy measures when they formed the government.

No wonder that after a decade and more into the 21st century, the traditionally disadvantaged in the society persist in wanting to know why persons of their ilk have always stood the pain while certain types of Jamaicans without collateral other than class positions and a socially constructed name, can still get loans over and above other types of Jamaicans, for entrepreneurial advancement.

They want to know, also, why do certain Jamaicans, outside of the big drug barons and those with class "connections", continue to enjoy the best cars, houses, health care and education for their children on borrowed money drawn from banks which receive the bulk of poor people's savings.

And last, but by no means least, they insist in wanting to know why successive Governments keep espousing the thesis of "pain before gain" in economic management when the privileged have not had to wait to have their economy in order before they share in the benefits they are supposed to be helping to produce.

For all available evidence points to the fact that despite the exceedingly tight fiscal space in which we have to survive, if not prosper, for the foreseeable future, a few still appear to be "making" it with little or no pain, while the majority suffers otherwise.

Much of this makes for widespread unease in the society at large. Already, political realism tells us that the view is quickly gaining currency that the great mass of the Jamaican population - the 'real people' according to Norman Manley - are threatened with being relegated further to the footnote of the page under the present administration to reflect their usual place as footnotes to the main drama of history.

The sceptics may even conclude that recent talk from a PNP platform by the likes of UWI professor, Brian Meeks, of Jamaica's drift to becoming a failed state, drew inspiration from this stubborn reality of persistent inequality in the society over decades, in addition to the question of whether the much vaunted economic growth talked about by successive administrations has been achieved, or can be sustained, without threat to our plural democracy.

Going by this scenario, what is equally serious in this nation's life is the issue of how to solve the problem of inequality by those called upon to guide the shaping of the new Jamaican social order and to design the new agenda that has been the challenge since August 6, 1962.

To be sure, we face a difficult future, and although our immediate prospects for surmounting such difficulties are not helped by the Finance and Planning minister telling the country that sustainable job creation is the province of the private sector and not the government, such truths are necessary, even as the issue of inequality looms large on the Jamaican social landscape where people still constitute the measure of all phenomena with which politicians must grapple.

But great care must be taken not to trade social justice and democracy for economic growth. I am not sure, for example, whether the traditions of our private sector have ever, or can in the future, taken us into innovation, genuine risk-taking or even unequivocal patriotism.

Many within the sector with genuine desires for conditions that would facilitate their entrepreneurial initiatives too frequently want protectionism for themselves and their particular enterprises, while denying it to others and failing to appreciate its consequences when used to protect their competitors overseas. Then there are those who stash their profits in foreign accounts and use up other people's money at home rather than their own for their adventures.

And still others malign the Government who must go and procure foreign exchange for them to spend; although, in fairness, it is their own capacity to produce and generate wealth that is put up as collateral for procuring the loans in the first place.

Admittedly, a big part of the problem for us in loosening the grip of this crisis rests on the fact that although we succeeded in negotiating our power from Whitehall, we are still complaining that that transferred power has not reflected itself in the equitable distribution of wealth within the Jamaican society, or even in the distribution of opportunity to enjoy whatever wealth there is, even if it was made on the labours of the majority.

Neither the individuals in Jamaica House nor the moguls of the formal private sector are to be blamed entirely for this. The responsibility for the challenge must be borne by all of us. But to the extent that nothing civilised or reasonably tolerable can be crafted for the great majority of our people without intelligent political action, it is hoped that moving forward to tackle the issue of inequality will involve economic, social and cultural goals being met simultaneously and in relative balance. If the mass of the population can be made to feel that there is credibility in the country's power structure, the society may yet avoid imploding.

There is a great deal of work to be done to impact the sense of fairness in the economy and society; and the government does not have unlimited time in which to do this. Living standards will more than likely define the outcome of the next general election than those of the past, given the state of the global economy where fiscal consolidation has cast its pall of austerity and despair over great swathes of humanity; and where any form of recovery from the prevailing recession will hinge on the question of the distribution of resources.

Those of us with "power" or who work in the shadow of power in Jamaica will need to show much deeper understanding of the unequal context within which we function in these uncertain times.

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