Poverty ‘a problem of epidemic proportions’
A poverty campaigner yesterday called for two single-sex boarding schools to be established in Bermuda for troubled youngsters at risk of getting sucked into gang life. Later, Martha Dismont, executive director of the Family Centre, told the committee about 85 percent of the families helped by her charity were black.
Sheelagh Cooper, from the Coalition for the Protection of Children, suggested the idea to MPs as one of a series of remedies for stemming the Island's rising tide of violence.
“The violent crime rate in Bermuda is 20 times that of the UK and ten times that of the US,” she told the joint parliamentary select committee on violent crime and gun violence.
“The spawn of fear, anger and desperation has reared its ugly head and its roots are firmly planted in Bermuda's darkest secret...that poverty has become a problem of epidemic proportions.”
She said: “Many Bermudians are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and desperation. For too long, we have ignored the great Bermudian dichotomy of the haves and have-nots and we are now paying the price for our ignorance and laissez-faire policies with the lives of young Bermudians.”
She claimed a “perfect storm” of social, psychological and economic issues had led to the wave of violent crime rocking Bermuda.
“While this country is among the world's wealthiest in per capita terms, the distribution of wealth draws a stark divide between the wealthy and the poor.
“More than 50 percent of black female headed households with children lived at or below the poverty line when the 2000 census was taken. Those numbers have increased substantially over the last ten years.”
The charity boss told the bipartisan committee chaired by PLP backbencher Randy Horton that children were growing up in neighbourhoods where “drug abuse and violence runs rampant and gang culture is pervasive”.
“They are exposed to these elements at an early age and grow up with gang life and criminal activity as a backdrop. Neglected by their overworked, exhausted and highly stressed parents and given up on by schools, troubled youth seek acceptance, safety, security and self-worth from gang families.
“In the same vein, they turn to the drug trade in order to earn the money and lifestyle that they don't think can be attained legitimately.”
Ms Cooper said her charity's client base was “100 percent black” and that an average of five families a day were currently getting in touch for financial help.
“They are looking for food, basically,” she said.
Ms Cooper said more than 90 percent of the population paid under $200 a month in rent 40 years ago, while the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment now was $3,000 a month or $36,000 a year.
“The average income in the restaurant, cafe and bar industry if you still have a job there is only $37,000 a year,” she said. “The average salary of all non-professional workers is $45,000.”
She said an “increasingly liberal work permit policy” was allowing local companies to bring in foreign workers and pay them low wages. “If you look at the data, it's the local Bermudian companies that are predominantly hiring the most non-Bermudians and paying the lowest wages.”
Her recommendations included:
l Wage guidelines for employers hiring unskilled or semi-skilled workers.
l Abolishing debtors' prison for mothers in rental arrears.
l Expanding food assistance programmes.
l Reviewing the work permit policy with a view to phasing out permits for unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.
l Tripling efforts to provide affordable housing.
l Merging Bermuda Housing Corporation, the Department of Child and Family Services and the Department of Financial Assistance.
l Pumping more money into youth counselling.
l Making Bermuda College “actually free” i.e. subsidising ancillary costs, incidentals and the cost of books.
l Financial support for mothers who want to return to school.
l Speaking to prisoners to find out what would have helped them be “productive, law-abiding members of society”.