Lack of Official Data on Poverty is Perplexing

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POVERTYBy Mellica McPherson 

There appears to be some level of disparity in the assessment of the Territory’s poverty levels. Although reports are indicating a higher level of poverty than was previously reported there is a lack of reliable territory-wide data to substantiate widespread impressions or to diminish them. The topic is a thorny one and government departments are not willing to comment with data in their possession.

Nevertheless, as it stands, the topic of poverty in the BVI can be easily debated with enough and equal points to support and oppose the subject.

Documentation on BVI Poverty

In 2002, UNICEF published a survey titled ‘Social Welfare Policy In The British Virgin Islands’. In that document it was stated: “The incidence of poverty in BVI is very low. The data suggests that a majority of households have access to the basic facilities and amenities. That means poverty is not a big problem. But this does not mean that poverty does not exist.”

The survey further stated: “Recent findings, have shown that, poverty in the society is beginning to emerge, especially among the immigrant population, single parent families and among the senior citizens. This trend of poverty could cause a serious social problem in the future.”

The points made in that document were later noted when during the 2013 Easter Festival Calypsonian Joycelyn Searles aka Sister Joyce, in her song titled “Well Sah what a ting” suggested that it was mainly migrant workers complaining of hardship.

In her song, the Calypsonian asked “if things were as bad as they say it is why don’t they go home.” Sister Joyce further explained that she would not sit in another country if the situation was as bad as the persons complained that it was. Similar comments indicating poverty, were made that year by the Mighty Leh-Leh in his song “Cost of Living Gone Up”.

As far as resources on the matter goes it would appear that a 2003 document further corroborated the point that  poverty in the BVI is low.

The position was hammered in the 2003 Caribbean Development Bank (CDB)  British Virgin Islands Poverty Assessment, which stated: “At present, poverty in the BVI is low by Caribbean standards, around 16% of households and 22% of the population. Indigence is almost totally absent…Trends in the level of poverty in the BVI cannot be ascertained owing to the absence of comparable data. Nevertheless, the rapid economic growth during the last decade means that poverty will almost certainly have decreased. With a few exceptions, the poor in BVI do not exhibit the characteristics that are traditionally associated with poverty.”

Is There Hunger?

Hunger is considered a significant consequence of indigence, but in the BVI there are few reports of persons going hungry. Among the few such reports were the need for a food drive, and a school feeding program.

Last year the Rotary Clubs undertook a food drive for persons who were reportedly going hungry in the Territory. During the announcement of that drive in August 2014, the Rotary Clubs announced that they took on the task after hearing that people needed food. The clubs did not provide the media with figures, but used words such as ‘startling’ to describe the situation.

The Rotarians, who were doing the food drive in aid of the Family Support Network (FSN) said: “This undertaking was decided upon following the startling figures of families that struggle daily for meals and turn to the FSN, and Social Development for help. There are reports that very often persons are turned away when there is nothing in their (FSN) food pantry.”

In October 2013 former Legislator, Hon. Eileene L. Parsons in response to a story about students going to school hungry pondered openly if that was an indication of a problem. Hon. Parsons during the 7 October, 2013 NDP radio program said: “I heard a very frightening thing today. The President of the Teachers Association, I believe it was in church, said out of his pocket every month he spends over $400.00 feeding kids who show up to school without breakfast. How can they learn if they are hungry…Do we have a problem?”

Minister for Education, and Culture, Hon. Myron Walwyn was also on the program and commented saying: “I heard the comments myself and I was quite shocked…but certainly it is something that we have to pay attention to. As you say, it is very difficult for a child to learn if the child is hungry. I know we do have some social issues, but based on what I heard the President say, it seems as if it is a much larger problem than we anticipated and it is something that certainly we need to address.” Since then a school feeding program was funded.

Mixed Employment Reports

Unemployment is also often tied to poverty and an examination of this area was deemed necessary to ascertain how the Territory’s poverty situation measured up. However, without up to date territorial figures it is very difficult to cite unemployment  as a contributing factor to poverty as there remains conflicting reports on the subject. Pundits and public opinion agree that this lack of fresh and reliable data is actually a call for government to explore the issue and show its leadership and transparency in combating poverty in the BVI.

The conflict stems from the fact that there are reports of joblessness, and persons suffering hardships because there is no employment. While on the other hand, there are announcements of job creations and employment opportunities – the jobless are not amused.

Over the last three years, there have been many reports of unemployment and joblessness. Similarly, there are announcements of job opportunities — one such announcement was made by the Economic Development and Fiscal Affairs Unit.

According to Ms. Patlian Johnson the Deputy Financial Secretary of Economic Development and Fiscal Affairs Unit things are picking up employment wise. During her appearance before the Standing Finance Committee last year, Ms. Johnson stated that although there was a slight dip in employment numbers, she anticipates an increase in job figures as more  opportunities emerge.

The Deputy Financial Secretary stated that the decrease in employment occurred between 2012 and 2013. However, she explained that there are expectations for it to increase slowly due to various economic activities.

These activities, she said were occurring in the financial services, tourism, agriculture and fishing industries. Further, it was stated that the encouragement of entrepreneurship endeavours was also creating job opportunities.

Similarly, on 17 December 2014, during the opening of the new Peebles Hospital, Minister for Health and Social Development, Hon. Ronnie Skelton said that 109 new jobs will be created in nursing alone, and more jobs in other areas.

In the past it was stated that the unemployment was heavier amongst youths and this continues to be an area heavily focused on in the unemployment elimination struggle. The most solid reference to the unemployment trend was in the Virgin Islands 2010 Population and Housing Census report which said: “Overall 2.8 percent of the total population of the Virgin Islands are unemployed and that unemployment was relatively high among young adults.”

The 2.8 percent is being addressed in what BVI Leader Dr. the Hon. D. Orlando Smith said was an aggressive strategy. In canvassing the issue of youth unemployment during the 18 August 2014 edition of NDP radio program, Premier Smith lauded the Youth Employment Register that was initiated by Minister for Education and Culture, Hon. Myron Walwyn, and said that it was one of the most important undertaking of government.

Hon. Smith said: “That was actually an important decision, because we know that there are quite a lot of young people who are not gainfully employed so it is an important initiative that resulted in many young people being employed and also achieving some skills.”

The BVI Leader announced that the time has come to take the initiative a step further to ensure maximum results. He said: “What we now have to do is take that it to the next level where there is a more formal training program for those young people and a more aggressive employment strategy.”

The Youth Unemployment Register now renamed the Youth Employment Service (YES) provides training and placement for youths in the Territory. It was launched by the Ministry of Education and Culture in November 2011 as a means to assess the status of disadvantaged and unemployed youths in the BVI.

In another swipe at unemployment the Government in May 2013 opened a new Employment Unit at the Labour Department, and  during the opening Deputy Premier and Minister for Labour Dr. the Hon. Kedrick Pickering under whose portfolio the subject of employment falls asked employers to layoff as few BV Islanders if they must downsize their business. In a warning to businesses, the Minister stated that failure from employers to consider retaining Virgin Islanders would result in the Labour Department stepping in to ensure that BV Islander jobs are preserved.

However, a July 2013 letter to the press from Virgin Islands Party Chairman, Hon. Julian Fraser presented a conflicting view of the notion that unemployment was being controlled. In his letter, Hon. Fraser painted a less than favorable employment picture: “In what I will consider either incompetence or a deliberate and wilful decision to keep the truth hidden, the Premier cannot present the people of the Virgin Islands a true and accurate picture of the territory’s unemployment, nor can he provide us with the economy’s rate of growth or contraction.”

“While a reason stated for this is the absence of statistics to produce this data, this situation is ironic. This economic downturn has created a culture of the unemployed, and the underemployed: people who are working reduced hours that are less than adequate to support their families; or work for months without pay. Regrettably it doesn’t end there, for we have seen where people have left the territory for their homeland after being released from their jobs,” Hon. Fraser further  pointed out.

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