Taking on the fight to end povertySunday, July 18, 2021
For over a decade I was a devoted 'karateka'. Originally it was going with my sister to Regal cinema to watch a “kickaz” which drew me to the martial arts. Having registered with Errol Lyn I soon realised that karate was less about fighting and more about harnessing one's self-discipline, strong mental focus, and stealthy stratagem. I vividly remember my black belt exam, it was not only physically brutal, but mentally exhausting. One of the qualifying criterion to pass the exam was to fight all the senior black belt instructors who came from around the island. This exercise was private and lasted for hours.
In my first fight, I was sent flying straight off the dojo into the yard with a powerful roundhouse kick to my stomach. The fact that I was 14 years old and a foot shorter than the Sempai did not matter. He just yelled, “Get up!” The physical pain associated with getting up off the pavement was one thing, but the excruciating bruise was to my ego, as I contemplated being kicked back off the dojo when we reconvened. But I couldn't retreat, or I would fail the exam. What was I going to do?
As I stepped back onto the dojo I asked for a minute, kneeled, and fixed my gi. In that moment I gave myself three options: (1) keep my guard up so I would not get hurt just to get through the fight; (2) attack him in the same way he was attacking me and hope he would exhaust himself; or (3) identify his weakest techniques and skilfully pressure his exposed areas.
I chose option three: “Hajime.” (Japanese to begin)
As we began to fight, I noticed his centre of gravity was compromised every time he executed his kicks, which also made his sequences slower. So I waited until he did his follow up kick, and when he raised and extended his leg, I shifted my stance and “swept” his anchor leg off the floor at the precise moment when he seemed off balance. He came crashing to the floor. I continued with the same mental discipline facing the other fights for what seemed like an eternity that day. But why did I not choose option one, which would have been so much easier?
I have been able to manage my life in times of adversity because I had options available to make choices. In my job as Member of Parliament I come in contact daily with people who have no options and no choices available to them. Seeing the world through their eyes is disheartening. With not enough education and training to access a job, their daily 'hustle' is inadequate to maintain the most basic lifestyle for themselves and their families.
Poverty has been fighting us for a long time and is one of our greatest enemies. This formidable opponent is the daily roundhouse kick to the gut for many Jamaicans who have limited or no access to potable water, adequate food supplies, affordable health care, safe housing, and sustainable education.
Jamaica has been measuring the rate of poverty since 1989. Poverty rates are calculated by the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) based on consumption expenditure data on the living conditions of the Jamaican population ( The Economic and Social Survey, PIOJ, 2019) Over the past 32 years Jamaica's poverty rates have moved from a high of 44.6 per cent in 1992 to the lowest record level of 9.9 per cent in 2007. In the most recent recorded year, the poverty rate for 2019 was estimated at 11 per cent (Finance Minister Nigel Clarke, June 2021). However, based on my interactions with people across Jamaica over the past year, I estimate that poverty in Jamaica has more than doubled and represents close to 700,000 people.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has intensified the burdens for many who were finding it difficult to make ends meet in the first place. Two months after the pandemic began in Jamaica, 62 per cent of households reported earnings below the minimum wage. Low-income families and women were the hardest hit, with 59 per cent and 53 per cent of them, respectively, losing employment.
Most of these households had to depend on meagre savings, remittances, and various loans, while others lacked any other source of income whatsoever. For households that relied on savings, 50 per cent said their savings could only last for two weeks, 30 per cent said that it could only last one week, and 18 per cent for one day. As a consequence, many children in these living situations experienced then, and continue to face daily food shortages. Some 47 per cent of them reside in rural areas (Caribbean Policy Research Institute, March 2021).
Since its implementation in 2002, the primary beneficiaries of the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) — nearly 50 per cent — are school-age children. More than $23.5 billion was paid out to Jamaican families registered with the programme between 2014 and 2019. These households with children receive approximately $8,000 per month, which is $266.67 (US$1.78) per day.
The majority of food consumed by Jamaicans is imported, including basic commodities such as rice, chicken neck and back, kidney, liver, and mixed vegetables. As a result, any movement in the exchange rate increases the cost of these items. There has been a seven per cent increase in the exchange rate since the start of the year (moving it to $155 for US$1.00). Therefore, individuals with fixed incomes will have to consume seven per cent less food items than they previously did. Added to these costs are the increases to electricity and water charges. Over the last year the price of oil has increased by over 100 per cent from US$35.00 to US$75.00 per barrel.
We are now facing a deep crisis with the daily reality that one mile up or down the road exists pervasive and visceral poverty for many Jamaicans who are hungry and jobless. The solutions must be based on growing our economy with an effective social protection system that promotes inclusive opportunities for our most vulnerable.
We must first recognise our humanity to each other; that helping to lift someone else out of poverty is not only good for the individual but good for the society overall. Furthermore, the Government needs to be more proactive and adopt the Caribbean Policy Research Institute's call for Parliament to pass the National Assistance Bill to replace the Poor Relief Act (1886). This would give a “coordinated approach to poverty reduction through an authoritative multi-sectoral institutional framework which effectively coordinates service delivery” through overarching legislation for social protection.
Additionally, let us implement a focused agricultural system that employs the unemployable to produce basic foodstuff to help feed our children and the elderly at subsidised costs. Finally, with the boom in the local construction sector, let us implement a national training skills programme for tradesmen and women so that they can get meaningful employment. If necessary, the tax base on the wealthy should be increased to fund these programmes.
Marcus Garvey once said: “Chance has never satisfied the hope of a suffering people.” Eradicating poverty in Jamaica must be done with deliberate and purposeful speed now. Let us give our people options to win this fight, once and for all.
Lisa Hanna is Member of Parliament for St Ann South Eastern, People's National Party spokesperson on foreign affairs and foreign trade, and a former Cabinet member
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