Election 2020: families below breadline on rise
Covid-19 has exposed the extent of poverty on the island, frontline workers have claimed.
Rachel Dill, the director of client services at the Coalition for the Protection of Children, said even two-parent families with full-time jobs had been forced by the soaring cost of living to seek help to buy groceries and other basics.
Ms Dill said: “The face of poverty is no longer the cliché, meaning dirty, scruffy, homeless.”
Ms Dill added: “We are seeing what you can describe as working poor. Parents working in one or two-family households, full-time, are still struggling to make ends meet.”
She added that some families were forced to send children to relatives or friends, while the parents “couch-surf, reside in abandoned buildings or live out of cars”.
Ms Dill said wages had frozen, but costs had risen and some businesses used “loopholes” to skip benefits payments, using “part-time status or contract work”.
She added a “surge” in homes being used for Airbnb holiday accommodation had affected the availability of affordable housing.
Ms Dill explained that a lack of “quality education and training”, along with “unemployment or underemployment versus cost of living” as contributors to poverty.
She added there had been a “lack of attention by governments to the cost of living” and a decline in education.
Ms Dill said the effects of economic recession from a decade ago also lingered.
She added the community had started to pay “more attention to mental health, and how this can severely impact one's overall standard of living”.
Ms Dill said the charity often spoke to parents who planned to move to Britain — and that “the majority of these families follow through on their plan”.
Ms Dill added: “Bermudians that relocate overseas can receive support to improve their quality of life and have increased access to opportunities that will sustain that quality of life.
“This speaks to the deficit in our own social support safety net, where it is not allowing individuals to move towards self-sufficiency.”
Poverty and homelessness featured in the Progressive Labour Party's platform for the General Election on October 1, with proposals for changes to the Financial Assistance programme, including personal employment plans for all able-bodied recipients.
The PLP also pledged to abolish payroll tax for people who earned less than $48,000 a year.
Vic Ball, of the One Bermuda Alliance, said the party would address poverty by improving education, to help people obtain work, and increasing opportunity for jobs through greater business confidence and investment in the island.
Marc Bean, the leader of the new Free Democratic Movement, said this week the island's cost of living was “unbearable”.
However, he added that cuts in government expenses could help reduce the pressure on the public.
Danielle Riviere, the interim executive director at the Eliza DoLittle Society, said the pandemic this year “exposed what was already happening”.
The Warwick-based charity, set up to provide food for the underprivileged, said demand had jumped by 24 per cent from March to June compared with the same period last year.
But Ms Riviere said the 12,702 clients helped from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020 was an overall increase of 20 per cent year-on-year. She added that only part of the rise was attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ms Riviere said: “We've always had people on the brink, living paycheque to paycheque. When this happened, we saw the mass result. Covid puts poverty in people's faces.”
Ms Riviere has a history of work in the charitable sector and headed the Centre on Philanthropy before she took up her present role.
She spent years as a charity consultant before that.
Ms Riviere said: “We could say we were fine — we don't have shantytowns.”
But she added: “What Covid shows is the families who were literally a paycheque away from being unable to provide food or cover their rent.”
Ms Riviere said some homeless people come to the Eliza DoLittle Society for food, but many of its clients were unemployed.
She added: “We surveyed them and found the majority haven't been working for three years.
“They aren't being impacted by short-term issues.
“What poverty looks like in Bermuda varies. Our cost of living is so high that people can work nine to five, and still be in poverty, or need some form of assistance.
“Covid didn't create these issues — it exposed them.”
Bermuda's 2016 Census, released in 2018, showed median personal income, which includes all earnings, not just work income, had fallen by 8 per cent since 2010, but inflation had crept up by 12 per cent over the same period.
Ms Riviere said black people had borne the brunt with a 13 per cent decrease in earnings, while white males earned 2 per cent more from 2010 to 2016.
But Ms Riviere added census statistics just skimmed the surface.
She said: “There's the ability here to not see it. We don't have good numbers to see as a country what our poverty level looks like.
“There are no census questions that get in-depth to that social services need outside of Financial Assistance.”
April Augustus, who preceded Ms Rivere at the charity from April 2019, said many clients were “working-class people with relatively decent jobs — but they're still coming in for food”.
Ms Augustus said much of the support went to “families, some large families — and always a lot of seniors”.
Claudette Fleming, the executive director of Age Concern, said part of the group's work was helping seniors who were “struggling to meet their basic, fundamental needs”.
Donna Outerbridge, Age Concern's sociologist and client services associate, said the 2016 census showed residents aged 50 and above made up 41 per cent of the population.
She added: “One can infer that with the increase in the ageing population, there is a direct link to the increase in requests for financial assistance.”
Dr Fleming said that requests for financial support from Age Concern's hardship programme had increased.
She added that there had been “just over 500 requests from seniors during Phase 1 and 2 of the shelter-in-place order” enforced in the early stages of the pandemic.
Dr Fleming added that Age Concern had seen an increase in requests for help with “food and electricity in particular” as well as housing.
Dr Outerbridge added that some seniors admitted their pensions were “insufficient to cover both their health insurance and their essential needs”.
In Bermuda's capital, and especially in Hamilton's parks, the homeless are the most obvious part of the population in poverty.
Dwayne Caines, the chief operating officer for the corporation, said: “In the last three years, it's very clear from where we sit at the corporation that the needs have gotten worse.”
He explained that the corporation had noticed more young people sleeping rough and there was “a consistent amount who have substance abuse and mental health issues”.
Mr Caines added: “But there's certainly a rise in the unsheltered space and we're also seeing a rise in the numbers of families as well.
“Covid-19 this year has exacerbated the challenge, because a lot of charities and businesses have a lot less to devote to the critical issues.”
The corporation announced proposals in January for a day centre where the homeless could wash clothes, get a shower, charge their phones and access social services.
Mr Caines said it “still remains a priority for the city, and we have resources that we're mobilising to deal with the new reality, post-Covid-19”.
He said: “Income inequality has always and will always be a challenge in Bermuda, when we look at the disproportionality of salaries.”
Mr Caines added: “There's clearly a major wealth gap.
“But it's consistent with most demographic models around the world — Bermuda is no different from most countries.”
Poverty in Bermuda
• July 2017: As supporters celebrate the Progressive Labour Party's election victory, David Burt, the Premier-elect, calls for an end to “people working two and three jobs just to remain in poverty”
• September 2017: The new government's Throne Speech pledges a parliamentary committee to explore establishing a living wage for Bermuda
• November 2017: Financial Assistance programme goes under review in an attempt to cut costs
• May 2018: The 2016 Census is released, showing the median personal income for black people falling 13 per cent since 2010, but rising for white people by 1 per cent
• August 2018: The bipartisan committee on a living wage delivers its recommendations, including setting a $12.25 minimum wage in 2019
• December 2018: A Bermuda Economic Development Corporation seminar promotes co-operatives as a means of reversing income inequality
• August 2019: The Government unveils the Bermuda Health Plan 2020 — billed as a unified system to share healthcare costs among residents
• January 2020: The City of Hamilton announces plans for a day centre to help the rising population of homeless people in the city
• March, 2020: Covid-19 is declared a pandemic on March 11 by the World Health Organisation; on March 24, emergency unemployment benefits commence as the crisis hits Bermuda's workforce