Financial assistance unsustainable — DeSilva
Changes to the $1 million-a-week financial assistance system and a “culture of entitlement” have to be made, Minister of Social Development and Sport Zane DeSilva said yesterday.
Mr DeSilva warned: “It's well recognised that the current expenditure of more than $50 million per year the Government spends on financial assistance is unsustainable and can't continue.”
The minister described the programme as a “lifeline” for many community members.
However, he added: “Unfortunately, over time there has developed an overreliance, and some may even say a culture of entitlement, among too many of those who receive financial assistance.”
Earlier this month the Throne Speech pledged to undertake a review of the financial assistance system which it said “does not effectively serve either the clients or the Government”.
But Kelly Hunt, executive director of the Coalition for the Protection of Children, warned against generalisations about people on government benefits.
Ms Hunt said: “While there has been some misuse of the system, we need to be cautious about painting all 2,000-plus individuals on financial assistance with a broad brush.”
She added: “Our fear is that we are seeing an emerging culture of hopelessness, where the average Bermudian is not able to afford the high cost of living here.”
Mr DeSilva said evidence showed the existing system unfairly penalised people who have part-time jobs “since they find themselves unable to sustain their progress towards financial independence”.
He added: “Most, if not all, of the people on financial assistance don't want to be there.”
He said that both policy and legislative changes were needed. “For example, we will look at requiring able-bodied unemployed persons who are receiving assistance to upgrade their education skills to facilitate their return to the workforce as soon as possible”, Mr DeSilva explained yesterday.
He also used the press conference to issue a call to the business community to help cut down the unemployment line.
Mr DeSilva said: “I will lay down this marker for the corporate sector. We have 300 able-bodied people that are on financial assistance.”
“We have enough companies on this island that I think can help us bear that burden. So why not take some of these folks on?”
He added: “Some of the folks that are able-bodied and don't have their GED, we're going to get them their GED.
“And we're going to pay for it and corporate Bermuda is going to help us pay for it. Because I am sure, like us, they want our people working.”
Ms Hunt said that she supported mandated education and skills upgrading but that she did not believe that the corporate world should provide funding.
She explained: “Companies need to operate as good corporate citizens and support the helping agencies in the third sector through charitable giving.
“Providing training opportunities to locals in conjunction to succession plans for positions held by non-Bermudians would decrease disproportions.”
Ms Hunt said that a living wage, equal employment opportunities for Bermudians, and new industries providing extra jobs would be “instrumental in the departure from increasing poverty”.
In an article written for The Royal Gazette in April, Sheelagh Cooper, chairwoman of the Coalition for the Protection of Children, said that 2,679 people were on financial assistance in 2016 — up a massive 400 per cent compared to ten years earlier.
Ms Cooper added that the total number of able-bodied unemployed and low-income earners nearly equalled the number of senior recipients — 969 seniors compared with 862 able-bodied recipients.
A further 848 people are disabled recipients of Government financial assistance.
Mr DeSilva, a wealthy businessman, was asked if he could relate to the struggles of someone on financial assistance.
He said: “I've slept on the floor. I've had five jobs. I know what it's like when my rent is $200 a month and I'm only making $50 a week.
“I know what it's like to work day and night just to get bread on the table. There are not too many people that I talk to that I can't relate to.”