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Public help vital to reduce cost of poverty

Theodore Roosevelt: “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing”

Bermudians are, by and large, an independent, canny and resourceful people.

In many ways we have long embodied what Theodore Roosevelt meant when he said that “far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing”.

But in recent years, of course, not all of us have had the opportunity to work at all, let alone to pursue worthwhile and fulfilling work.

For most of the past decade, the combined effects of a worldwide Great Recession and gross financial mismanagement on the part of past Bermuda governments served to almost cripple the island’s economy.

Businesses went under, countless jobs were lost and local stock prices plummeted.

The overall economy contracted — and then continued to contract farther still. And for the first time in living memory, significant numbers of Bermudians became economic migrants, moving from an island most of the rest of the world views as an earthly paradise to other countries where they had the right to live and work in search of financial security and dignity.

Our network of public welfare programmes, put into place when there was only very limited poverty amid Bermuda’s longstanding abundance, were tested to the utmost.

The costs of funding these services steadily increased — the bill now exceeds $50 million annually — as the worst and most protracted economic downturn in modern Bermuda history continued to blight our community for years.

The reality is that even now, with a modest recovery under way since 2015, close to 3,000 Bermudians are still dependent to one degree or another on some form of public assistance.

Bermuda, of course, has a moral obligation to assist the least fortunate among us — to ensure that no elderly or disabled person, no child, no family, are left without the essentials required for a decent and healthy existence.

This remains, after all, one of the most expensive 20-square miles of real estate in the world to live in — and the cost of living was perhaps the only key economic indicator that continued to trend consistently upward after the slump began.

Today poverty is not far from the doors of many ordinary Bermudians, some of whom were part of the island’s once-ballooning middle class just a few years, ago but who now find themselves in need of help from the Government or some of the same charities they used to donate to.

There are, of course, some who view such humanitarian considerations with an economist’s chilly indifference to the kind of costs that cannot be immediately quantified on a balance sheet.

But it should be noted that the cumulative expense of doing nothing to alleviate the worst suffering in our midst would ultimately far outweigh present outlays.

For unless the immediate problems stemming from poverty, unemployment and underemployment are dealt with promptly, they fester and grow.

Eventually, they drain the strength of the community as a whole, extending their consequences, which can range from welfare dependency to drug dependency, criminality and social decay, from generation to generation.

However, none of this is to say the status quo is either sustainable or desirable.

Just as the times, problems and conditions in Bermuda have changed, so the nature and objectives of both our social assistance programmes and related public services must also be changed if they are to meet our present and future needs.

Clearly there is an onus on the Government to restructure our public school system so as to provide young people with the core education and skills demanded by today’s marketplace, a marketplace that grows increasingly competitive and complex by the day.

Many of our young people are being taught skills that are inadequate or obsolete — or soon will be obsolete — because of rapid changes in technology, workplace requirements and business structures.

And when it comes to those already sidelined from the workforce but who are both able and anxious to swap their existing dependency for independence from the welfare rolls, merely responding to their joblessness with a cheque hardly constitutes a satisfactory solution.

Such cheques must be complemented, and ultimately made unnecessary, by services aimed at identifying their strengths and aspirations as well as identifying those who could benefit from retraining and helping them to find employment.

This is the only genuinely satisfactory solution when it comes to reducing not only the long-term costs of poverty in financial terms, but in human terms as well.

Public assistance in Bermuda must be increasingly directed towards prevention, rehabilitation and putting people back to work.

Poverty enfeebles individuals and, by extension, the broader community. More efficient public welfare policies and related programmes will benefit the island’s morale, its economy and, most importantly, its people, Bermuda’s most valuable resource.

Ultimately, of course, the Government’s primary responsibility in this area comes down to continuing to make Bermuda an attractive jurisdiction to invest in as well as a reliable partner for those outside investors who do put their money and confidence in the island.

For only by continuing to grow the economy can we once again provide all Bermudians with the opportunity to “work hard at work worth doing”.