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The slow, gruelling crawl out of poverty

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, June 03, 2014    

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TODAY, June 3, I am likely on the campus of Princeton University, in New Jersey, for my daughter's commencement. My other daughter graduated two years ago from University of Maryland, College Park, the flagship institution for the state university system of Maryland. They have had an outstanding mix of public and private education within the United States system.

As always, this is a moment of reflection for me. For sure, some will say it's all about bragging, and those who genuinely care about what it means to be virtuous will find that neither humble nor modest. Call it what you will, though, I am happy for my daughters, for my beloved parents, for my whole family, who, individually and collectively have been on this slow, gruelling climb out of poverty for all of my life, and before.

On my maternal side, I can trace my ancestry only to my grandmother who passed many years ago. But on the paternal side, I have clear recollections of my great-grandmother. Both sides were poor, but it is the paternal side that, over 150 years, reflects a clear, linear journey away from debilitating poverty, with each generation doing a little better than the one before. My nieces and nephews in Jamaica and my daughters represent a fifth generation that, while not wealthy, have had an excellent foundation laid for them and should do much better than merely self-sustain. I recall going up to Princeton with her on her college tour in the spring of 2010 and listening to an administrator speak to the group of parents and children in Nassau Hall. She reminded the group that, years ago, Sonia Sotomayor, just like them, came to Princeton University as an uncertain and perhaps slightly intimidated 18-year-old. She rose to become the first Latina justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Once you get past your interpretation, then understand that the better part of me hopes fervently that somewhere in Jamaica, where so many people live in desperate poverty or anywhere in the world that a poor family is experiencing the despair and hopelessness that poverty often brings, someone will be inspired and understand that he/she too can stay on the light side and triumph.

Much of our trajectory is documented in my autobiographical collection of essays, How will I get to know my children when I get to heaven? Ultimately, there is the broader statement that I want to make about poverty and poor people, because as I engage in the discourse through different media, and as I reflect on my own experiences living in Jamaica, it seems that many of us have equated poor people with the conditions that poverty breeds. And, rather than launching an attack on these conditions, some have chosen to attack the people who live in them and to further marginalise them.

Poverty, in a material sense, means that people are deprived of the resources they need to take care of their basic needs. The World Bank defines this as living on less than US$1.25 a day. More than 1.2 billion people in the world fall in this category, and another 2.8 billion are just over the benchmark at US$2 a day. Hundreds of thousands of our own people fall in this category, unable to afford proper nutrition, health care and education, and are at greater risk for human trafficking. The lack of these resources does not make them less human, but it certainly makes them vulnerable to dehumanising behaviour that is both internally and externally inflicted.

Some of us think, too, that personal responsibility, or the lack thereof, is the ultimate arbiter of whether people fail or succeed. Personal responsibility is critical, but so are the intractable superstructures that impact people's lives on a daily basis, such as partisan politics, sustained weak governance, thoughtless public policies, and the absence of relevant education or the opportunities or tools that are required in the process of becoming responsible or self-sustaining.

Here is another personal example. My daughter thinks she is coming home for a few months to chill, train the dog, and sort me out, but I have plans for her to go work on the 2014 census being conducted by the Department of Commerce. She will not be inhibited in anyway if she wants the job, and slots are still open. In contrast, as a student in my late teens at Church Teachers' College, Mandeville, my two older siblings and I applied to work on an upcoming government census. The applications went through our member of parliament, who turned them down with a message that our family belonged to the wrong party. So much for a summer job to pay school fees, buy basic toiletries, help our parents, or protect us from the indignity of having to beg or borrow.

Our persistent and growing socio-economic fragility, almost 200 years after Emancipation, makes a compelling case for comprehensive and targeted approaches to ending extreme poverty. This means addressing immediate need for proper housing, health care, nutrition, and programmes that will integrate them fully into society. The trickle-down approach or the efforts to spur "inclusive" economic growth has clearly not worked on account of corrupt governance and the tunnel vision of the wealthy. Further, the global recession of the past five years has created higher barriers to prosperity for those living in extreme poverty. President of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim, in his address to the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)/World Bank Group in Washington, DC, in April, pointed out that, if all the growth recorded by countries continued at the same rate as over the last 20 years with income distribution remaining unchanged, poverty will only fall by 10 per cent by 2030.

The chronically poor in Jamaica and worldwide need direct intervention to help them emerge from intergenerational poverty which goes back to plantation slavery. Failing that, the strain on the natural and social environment we lament every day will only worsen. As the World Bank president said, ending extreme poverty requires "laser-like focus" on making growth more inclusive and targeting more programmes to assist the poor directly. Otherwise, it is just more loss of human capital and more living on the edge for everyone.

Grace Virtue, PhD, is a social justice advocate.

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