WHATEVER the prime minister and her finance minister tell the nation later today, we can be very certain that it will require even more sacrifice and hardship.
We already know that an International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme — deemed by economic experts as absolutely necessary if Jamaica is to stabilise its economy and ultimately achieve sustainable economic growth — will demand more cost cutting.
All of us will feel the pinch, but we suggest that it is the poorest among us — many of whom are already virtually submerged — who will be the most adversely affected.
A huge challenge for the society will be to ensure that not just those struggling to make their small wages stretch, but also those without a job or earnings are able to survive and maintain hope for a better tomorrow.
It is absolutely imperative that hope is somehow sustained for the most vulnerable segments of the population. Hopelessness triggers cynicism, degradation, and becomes manifest in criminality and all forms of anti-social behaviour which will undermine, if not destroy, the national fabric.
In the circumstances, the already limited social intervention programmes, meant to ease the plight of the very poor, must be maximised, even as there is cost cutting — contradictory as that may sound.
That’s why news that close to 60,000 Programme for Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) beneficiaries, mainly children, have lost benefits totalling $401 million for failing to comply with stipulations is so disturbing. Pitifully small as the PATH benefits may seem, they are essential for the dependents.
Yet stipulations, such as that there be an 85 per cent attendance at school to ensure qualification for benefits, often conspire to present a classic catch-22 situation. For example, as those of us who are paying attention will know, among the major reasons for poor attendance at school is shortage of money to fund bus and taxi fares. Countless children attend school only two or three days per week because their parents simply cannot afford the high costs of transportation every day, PATH or no PATH.
Obviously, the more children there are in the home, the more difficult the situation becomes. There are cases where parents and guardians are forced to choose which child goes to school as against another.
That hard economic reality is among the main reasons this newspaper has forcefully argued that as much as possible children should be asked to attend schools closest to them in a system of geographical zoning. Ideally, children should be walking to school or at worst, paying no more than one transportation fare, to and from school.
However, to return to the basic point, the Government has got to find ways to minimise the obvious contradictions in the delivery of social benefits such as PATH, even as beneficiaries fulfil obligations for their own good.
And as we have consistently said in this space, it can’t only be about Government. In the months and years ahead, those best able to, must pull together to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected. We speak of private voluntary groups, business organisations, service clubs, citizens’ associations and other community groups, the Church, community leaders, including business operators and professionals, working in partnership — as never before — with public sector agencies to ensure the poorest are assisted and their children go to school.
This much-needed public/private partnership is something we suggest Mrs Simpson Miller endorse in her address to the nation tonight.
All of us have a vested interest in the sustenance of hope among the mass of the Jamaican people.