Efforts to finally assess the standard of living and level of poverty in the Territory are proving difficult and Director of the Central Statistics Office (DCSO) Raymond Phillips informed members of the House of Assembly during the Standing Finance Committee sittings that were held in April that the deadline for the Survey of Living Conditions and Household Budget that commenced in late 2018 might not be met.

The combined surveys were embarked on in November last year and were expected to cover one thousand (1000) randomly selected households in the Territory. At the time of commencement it was explained that the surveys would be utilizing the Caribbean Development Bank’ (CDB) Enhanced Country Poverty Assessment methodology. It was pointed out that this method was more in-depth than traditional income-based poverty measures and would examine aspects such as education, health, living standards and employment.

The process of collecting data was expected to span more than six months. However, in April Phillips pointed out that the officers from his department were still  in the field conducting the standard of living survey, but because of difficulties encountered might not be able to meet the target of 1000 surveys by the end of June.

Phillips stressed that persons within the community are reluctant to provide data and he mentioned that his officers were experiencing difficulties in obtaining information from surveyed persons.

Among other things the data from the survey was expected to provide a clear picture of the social and economic realities of the living conditions and poverty in the Territory. The information is needed because for years there appeared to be some level of disparity in the assessment of the Territory’s poverty levels. Although informal reports indicate a higher level of poverty than was previously presumed; there is a lack of research to agree or disagree.

Having a better grasp of how things are as regards to poverty in the Territory is especially urgent considering mentions of post hurricane hardships and other resulting difficulties. However, without the actual statistics the reports are being brushed away with the saying “things are not that bad.”

The truth is that people have lost their jobs, businesses have lost from 30% to 60% of their turn-over, rents have gone up, shopping at the supermarket for staple food items, fruits, vegetables, fish and meat have increased: what you could buy before 2017 hurricanes with $100 now requires $135/$145. When thoroughly researched these estimates may look optimistic because the reality is quite sad.

Documentation on BVI Poverty

In 2002, UNICEF published a document 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 document 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 during the 2013 Easter Festival when 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 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. This speaks well of the industry…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 factor of poverty, 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.

In 2014 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 that year, the Rotary Clubs announced that they took on the task after hearing that people needed food. The Club 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 said: “This undertaking was decided upon following the startling figures of families that struggle daily for meals and turn to the Family Support Network, 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 Parsons in response to a story about students going to school hungry pondered openly if that was an indication of a problem. 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 at school without breakfast. How can they learn if they are hungry…Do we have a problem?”

Former Minister for Education, and Culture, 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…I know we do have some social issues, but based on what I heard the President said, 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 as such 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 this area as a means for poverty concerns as there remains conflicting reports on the subject.

The conflict stems from the fact that there are reports of joblessness, and persons suffering hardships because there is no employment. This matter was exasperated by the 2017 hurricanes where a large number of businesses were damaged or destroyed. However, there have been employment drives since then: one being the recently announced ‘1000 Jobs In 1000 Days’ initiative launched by Premier Fahie. This initiative is expected to ensure that persons are gainfully employed. It is expected to be a public/private partnership undertaking.

However, even as the government tries to stamp out unemployment it should be noted that the situation seems to be an ever present one since over the years it has been recorded that unemployment was heavier amongst youths even though it continues to be an area heavily focused on by successive governments. Efforts included the Youth Employment Register and apprenticeship programme implemented by the previous administration.

The unemployment elimination struggle was mentioned in the Virgin Islands 2010 Population and Housing Census report which is the most recent census the Territory has. That document 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 Youth Unemployment Register 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 former Government in May 2013 opened an Employment Unit at the Labour Department, and during the opening then Deputy Premier and Minister for Labour Dr. 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 former Minister stated that failure from employers to consider retaining Virgin Islanders would result in the Labour Department stepping in to ensure that BV Islanders jobs are preserved.

However, a July 2013 letter to the press Third District Representative Hon. Julian Fraser presented an opposing 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 willful 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.

The conventional wisdom among journalists and media owners is that hammering on poverty and unemployment issues could be perceived by the government of the day and its supporters as an inimical act and that victimization may follow suit. This possibility begs questions under the banner of “Freedom of the Press”. In the not too distant past there has been at least one instance where, in 2015, BVI media owners and editors were summoned to the V.I. Court of Justice (Criminal Division).