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Seniors want action on cost of living increases, says charity

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Age Concern Bermuda wants help for seniors who are being hit by the rising cost of living

A charity dedicated to helping the island’s older people said many of its members wanted greater price control regulations in the face of creeping cost-of-living increases.

Age Concern Bermuda highlighted that its financial hardship support totalled more than $90,000 in the past year as seniors struggled with electricity, rent and food bills.

Craig Simmons, a top economist, said separately that the most vulnerable people on the island needed immediate plans to combat rising costs – and many low-income households were already making changes.

Mercedes Pringle-DeSilva, the operations manager for programmes at Age Concern Bermuda (Photograph supplied)

Mercedes Pringle-DeSilva, the programmes operations manager at Age Concern Bermuda, explained: “Many of our members and clients have voiced their concerns regarding the steady increases in these prices and the desire for more regulations surrounding price control.

“Basic items such as bread, cereal and milk have been more noticeable, in addition to items like fruit packs.”

She added that more than $90,000 was distributed in the past year in direct financial aid from Age Concern’s hardship fund.

Ms Pringle-DeSilva said the biggest dollar value of support was electricity and rent, but when it came to the volume of support - what the majority of people need most help with - food is the biggest category.

She explained that "even though the most money was used to support electricity and rent, the need we assisted the most was actually food“.

“It just so happens that the price per person is a lot higher in utilities than food,” she said.

The charity’s hardship scheme spending ran to about $101,000 in 2020-21.

Although a year-by-year comparison was not available owing to a change in how support is categorised, Ms Pringle-DeSilva said that the total in 2016-17 was $32,000.

She added: “As you can tell during and post Covid, our assistance in hardship support has increased.”

Educational events at Age Concern Bermuda, which has a membership of about 5,200 according to its 2021 Annual Report, have included topics such as Reducing Your Carbon Footprint/Electricity Bill.

Ms Pringle-DeSilva said that the charity looked forward to hosting more sessions related to other areas of concern for the island’s older adults.

She added that advice from the charity recently included unplugging electrical items when they are not being used.

Ms Pringle-DeSilva said: “In the recent seminar conducted by BE Solar they suggested to our members installing LED lighting, smart timers and of course going solar where you can, to be more energy efficient and cost friendly.”

She added advice to “market and roadside shop within reason”.

Ms Pringle-DeSilva said: “Our local produce farmers and fishers do amazing work, and as an initial point of contact their prices are often a bit cheaper as they don’t have the added expense of having to source and bring in items.

"And ‘shop around’, tedious as this activity may be, we all know that our grocers have individual pricing schemes, and this means those items we love may cost less at another store.“

She urged: “Continue to be vocal about your concerns because, as we know, many voices are more impactful than one.

“We will continue to listen out to your voices and address them where we can.”

Let us know your thoughts

Have you been severely affected by an increasing cost of living? We’d like to hear from you. Please e-mail fmcwhirter@royalgazette.com or call 278-0146.

Craig Simmons is senior economics lecturer at the Bermuda College (File photograph)

Mr Simmons, a senior lecturer in economics at Bermuda College, said that supply-chain challenges linked to the coronavirus pandemic had “wide-ranging impacts” on prices.

He added that the war in Ukraine was driving food prices.

Mr Simmons said that countries less dependent on imports could aim to substitute items brought in from overseas for goods produced locally.

He added: “For the island as a whole, substitution is not an option, at least not in the short term.

“Our import dependence on the rest of the world didn’t happen overnight, so it will take many years of concerted effort to lessen that dependence.

“But for individuals, the story is different.

“For example, there are zealots among us who want nothing more than independence from the grid.

“There are also the environmentally conscious – a considerably larger group – who want to both lessen their carbon footprint and hedge against rising non-renewable energy prices.

“Given the present uptake of residential photovoltaic technologies, the result of this self-interest is greater energy independence and a shock absorber against the vagaries of international fossil fuel markets.

“But energy only makes up 4 per cent of consumer spending.”

Mr Simmons highlighted: “To gain greater control over the cost of living, we need to target bigger spending categories.

“Food fits the bill – it makes up 12 per cent of consumer spending.”

He said that the closest the island came to “any semblance” of food independence was between 1840 and 1920, after Governor William Reid introduced the latest farming techniques “and paved the way for farmers from Madeira and Azores”.

Mr Simmons added that the island at that time had 3,000 acres of arable land.

The Draft Bermuda Plan 2018 Review and Strategy Report said that the island by then had 738 acres of agricultural reserve, only about half of which was actively farmed.

Mr Simmons said: “Decreasing our reliance on food imports requires thoughtful government policies to support the efforts of farmers.

“But the most vulnerable cannot wait for a government to develop thoughtful policies.

“Their need is immediate and so their strategy must be immediate.

“Many low-income households are already turning to shore fishing for protein, home gardens for carbohydrates – potatoes and cassava – and vegetables, especially wild varieties.

“These substitutions of local for imported food help blunt the high cost of living, but they are not enough.”

Short term relief for most in need can be effective

Craig Simmons, a senior economics lecturer at Bermuda College, said that “as a general principle, any policy for mitigating the social impact of high energy and food prices should target vulnerable households and be temporary”.

He explained: “In this policy framework, the Government should allow any price increases to pass through the economy without cutting taxes or duties on fuels and food.

“The Government can target vulnerable households with the existing social service network.

“During the pandemic, we saw the Government quickly and effectively respond to the needs of households headed by in-person workers with an unemployment benefit.

“We also saw the not-for-profit sector step up and deliver food to needy households. The island has an effective social service network that can mitigate the social impact of rising prices.

“Government cash handouts and food vouchers as well as third-sector pantries and food programmes have proven effective at meeting the most vulnerable’s basic needs.

“Allowing prices to pass through the economy serves a useful economic and social function. Higher prices can incentivise local food and energy production which in turn addresses our food and energy insecurity.”

The economist said that the most recent collection of comprehensive data on personal spending was the Household Expenditure Survey of 2013.

It showed that housing was the largest share of weekly spending at 29 per cent.

Mr Simmons highlighted earlier this year the need to carry out another consumer spending survey to show how habits have changed.

Jason Hayward, the Minister of Economy and Labour, said earlier this month that the system used to gauge inflation will be updated next year as part of a ten-year cycle.

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Published June 13, 2022 at 3:07 pm (Updated June 13, 2022 at 3:07 pm)

Seniors want action on cost of living increases, says charity

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