Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Gap Between Rich and Poor

Deuteronomy chapter15 verse 11 “For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land”.
Much of the suffering in the world today is as a direct result of the greed of mankind. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening at a very fast pace throughout the developed and developing societies. This ever expanding gap does not augur well for the development of any society especially a small state such as Jamaica. It is abundantly clear that we are living in economically challenging times. However, despite this fact it is also profusely clear that the rich are getting richer and the poor in the society are getting poorer.
Successive governments since political independence have pursued and implemented many policies and programmes in the guise of redistributing wealth in the society.  However, this has not worked over the years and as such the gap between those who have much and those who have little have increased over the years. The primary purpose of any government is to create the environment conducive for the creation of jobs in order to stimulate economic growth and development.
Recently an Oxfam report entitled, “Working for the Few” highlighted the seriousness of global inequality regarding wealth distribution. The report showed the top eighty five richest individuals in the world have a combined net worth of that of the poorest half of the world’s population. The wealth of the richest eight five people in the world amounts to over US$110 Trillion dollars. It has been documented that there is a correlation between wealth, power and influence.  The rich have successfully wielded political influence to manipulate policies in their favour on issues ranging from anti competitive business practices to financial deregulation.  If we are not careful our elected parliamentarians could easily find themselves catering to interest groups who are the big donors to political parties and election campaigns. In fact there have been recent instances of questionable campaign financing to both major political parties; the People, s National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party resulting in much humiliation and embarrassment to both parties. It is now time for Jamaica to act with a sense of urgency to put the necessary legislation in place to facilitate a more transparent system regarding contributions to political parties. Failure to do this will only serve to reinforce the perception that Jamaica is a corrupt state. Over the years Jamaica’s performance on Transparency International ranking has been dismal and more determined effort on the part of government must to taken to improve our image in the eyes of the world regarding the issue of corruption. While nothing is wrong with being rich something is troubling in a world where so many children go to bed hungry each night. Something is wrong in a world where many families survive on $1US daily. Something is wrong in a world where 3.5 billion people or half of the world population have combined assets of the world top eighty five richest persons.  Something is indeed wrong when the minimum wage does not relate to the reality on the ground. There is a need for a living wage not solely a minimum wage in the society as well as social safety net for the most vulnerable among us.
Income inequality and wealth generation are two critical areas that as a society we need to spend more time addressing since these are indicators of economic growth.  Income inequality is the uneven distribution of wealth within a defined geographic area.  A number of factors such as gender, access to education, nepotism and computerization all impact income inequality.  Most studies reveal that gender income gap favours males in the labour market. Nepotism is favourtism granted in politics to supporters of a political party or relatives of a powerful political figure.  As the society becomes more developed and as technology increases the need for computers and machine to take over some jobs is inevitable. People will be displaced and made redundant. This will have crippling effects of these individuals and their dependents especially if they are the main bread winner of their family.
The middle class in Jamaica is eroding at a very fast pace, indeed we hardly talk about the middle class anyone instead we refer to that segment of the population as the “working poor”.
Jamaica is such a fascinating place with many instances of Oxymoronic and Paradoxical examples. How can you be working and be classified as among the poor?
Income tax inequality has been the main factor responsible for creating such a troubling economic divide in the Jamaican society. Those of us who are “pay as you earn” (PAYE) employees continue to bear the brunt of income tax while the rich evade taxes and the poor are too impoverished to pay. A reform of income tax is urgently needed in the Jamaica society to bring about more fairness and equity to the collection of taxes especially with regards to PAYE,s income and in the process help to restore the middle class. A society cannot move ahead in economic terms if there is no middle class. As a result policy makers must ensure that there is some breathing space for that section of your population in order to have sustainable development.
Inequality data and statistics give us an important insight into the state of our income as well as the health of our society. To understand how many people of a country are poor it is equally important to know the country’s per capita income as well as how equally or unequally income is distributed across the population. Jamaica’s per capita income is approximately US$ 7,000.
Yet despite the improvements over the years in Jamaica’s per capita income roughly a fifth of the population are still living in poverty. Jamaica has a poverty rate of between 16.5 per cent and 20 per cent.
Since his elevation to the papacy last year, Pope Francis has been using his office to speak about the rising inequality in societies and the split between the very poor and the super rich. Recently the Pope spoke about how societal values have changed, he said when an elderly person dies dues it exposure it was no longer news, however, when the stock market loses two points that made the news.
We live in a world where material acquisition and possession are the hallmark of human achievement and existence. The more the rich have is the more they wish to acquire regardless of who they need to trample on in achieving their goal.
We are currently witnessing a power grab by the rich. State entities are being gobbled up by the rich and the politically connected. This of course is being done under the guise of development.
 Crown lands are being sold to the richest Jamaicans while the others of us fight for the crumbs which fall off the table. The poorer class is expanding daily as the Jamaica dollar devalues at the end of each trading day. It now takes $108 Jamaican dollars to purchase $1US dollar.Wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few while the poor are left to fend for themselves.  Until we restrict the power of the greedy few among us and empower the many the gap between the haves and have not's will only widen.
Needless to say we will not achieve sustainable development until we create a culture of equal opportunity for all and foster a sense of belonging for all Jamaicans. 

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.
waykam@yahoo.com