WE AGREE with Minister of Social Development Donna Cox’s statement that it is important to break the cycle of dependence on state grants and for citizens to be empowered to be self-reliant.
“There is a cycle of families on grants,” Ms Cox stated on Saturday during the budget debate. “The grandmother would be on grant, the mother on grant and the children. This is something we are addressing because once we empower them, we will be able to wean them off.”
But is this the full extent of the complex issues facing the social support system?
The Government disburses support to many different classes of people. In the last year alone, the State spent hundreds of millions on a range of measures and expenditure items.
These included: $575 million for the disability assistance grant (helping 22,933 people); $353 million for senior citizens pension (109,044 people); $336 million for the public assistance grant (18,938 people) and $174 million for the food support programme (31,547 people).
Additionally, a range of ad hoc initiatives were introduced, specifically to tailor for those in need of unemployment support and rent relief in 2020 as a direct consequence of the covid19 pandemic and the economic fallout it caused.
Finance Minister Colm Imbert has indicated a further provision of at least $200 million in covid19 relief has been made for the next fiscal year.
Ms Cox noted the State has not reduced the dollar value of a single grant disbursed by her ministry. Those eligible to receive a senior citizens pension, public assistance grant, a disability grant or any other grant will continue to receive disbursals. That is commendable.
However, should we be content only with the fact that the dollar values of some grants have not changed? Before the pandemic, the cost of living was already rising. With utility rate hikes on the horizon and inflation increasing, this is set to continue.
If anything, what the pandemic has revealed is the tremendous pressure on the State’s multi-pronged system of support. Other countries have been forced to increase grants to the vulnerable. For example, on Wednesday US authorities increased social service benefits by 5.9 per cent.
There are so many struggling businesses and unemployed people in TT right now facing situations they have never faced before. Speaking about “weaning” certain sectors of the population off grants should not prevent us from appreciating the overlapping social, economic and ethical factors in play.
In order to make any real progress on the gap between the rich and the poor, we must go beyond the question of dependency and also acknowledge the factors behind it. In short, we need a deeper discussion about the root causes of inequality in our society.