The politics of poverty and prosperity in The Bahamas
“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.” — Confucius, Chinese teacher and philosopher.
In our country’s elections, the so-called “poor man”, sometimes referred to as “the average man” or in Nassau, more popularly known as “the man from Over-the-Hill”, becomes a pawn in a political game of pandering.
Why? Because he, “the poor man”, has the votes. In one way or another, not less than 70 percent of Bahamian voters might come to see themselves as “the poor man” or the “average man”.
If this is true, then more than 120,000 of the approximately 172,000 registered voters fit the category of the so-called “poor man” or “average man”.
It is no wonder then that politicians try to identify closely with this group at election time. So watch for it. Watch for the number of times you hear promises to, cries for, appearances with and appeals on behalf of “the poor man” or the “average man” or “the man on the street”.
You can listen for claims of who is for “the poor man” and who is not. Listen to the parties argue about who has the backs of “the poor” and who does not.
“The poor man”, as at no other time in his life, will be a star in the political melodrama that is the Bahamian general election.
“Poverty,” as defined by Dictionary.com, “is the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support.”
Abject poverty, is the extreme case of this.
Bahamians, as a general rule, do not know poverty; certainly, not abject poverty.
The peoples of Malawi, Burundi, Central African Republic, Niger, Liberia, Madagascar, Congo, Gambia, Ethiopia and Guinea live in the 10 poorest countries in the world.
They survive on less than $526 per capita.
Haiti, our neighbor to the south, and the poorest nation in the Americas, has a GDP per capita of $846.
For these countries poverty is most acute. Their citizens risk limb and life daily to get out of what Mahatma Ghandi described as “the worst form of violence” – poverty.
In our country, when people say they are “poor”, few, if any mean that they are like the peoples of impoverished countries in Africa or Haiti.
Even our official poverty line is many times that of the per capita income of the richest country among the 10 poorest in the world.
According to the Bahamas government, if you make less than $4,247 per year or $354 per month or $89 per week you are poor.
That income is five times the income per capita of Haiti.
Using the government’s poverty line ($4,247), about 13 percent of Bahamians are “officially” poor. This poverty is the same rate as recorded in the USA where some 47 million people fall below their poverty line.
Ethiopia and others have rates of about 75 percent, while Uruguay and others have rates under 1 percent.
If 13 percent of registered voters are “the poor” in The Bahamas, then some 22,360 of them are officially “the poor”.
That is not a huge number, but if you are a politician looking for votes, you cannot ignore it.
Of course, most Bahamians would look at $4,247 per year as a laugh.
“I mean no one cud live off dat amount in dese days,” they would say.
“People can’t afford no electricity, cable, feed dey children and buy no numbers wit dat kinda money,” they would say.
For many of these Bahamians, even if you are making minimum wage, which is $210 per week or $10,920, you are “the poor man”.
This would be about at least 30 percent of the population.
Add them to the number of officially poor and you have now 43 percent of the population.
This percentage of the 172,000 registered voters is about 74,000.
If you are a politician looking for votes, not only can you not ignore this number, you feel the need to bow to it. But the story of “the poor man” doesn’t stop there.
There are large numbers of middle-income Bahamians who believe themselves to be the working poor.
Their annual household income is some $88,000, more than 20 times the official poverty line.
However, their finances are so tight, they practically live from hand to mouth.
When they look at “dem rich Bahamians”, like “The White Knights” and “The Sunshine Boys” or “dem crooked politicians wit dey hands in the cookie jar”, they see themselves as “the poor man” or “the average man”.
These middle income people would beef up the percentage of “the poor man” to more than 70 percent.
Now we have some 120,000 voters deemed to be “the poor”. That’s a huge number of voters who demand attention; so politicians shamelessly ‘kowtow’ to them.
Politicians eagerly show their solidarity with “the poor”, despite the fact that most of them disclose, or don’t disclose, that they are millionaires or near millionaires.
So in the House of Assembly, at rallies and in the press, there will be a mass-fawning over the plight of the so-called “poor man”.
I find this all so laughable.
Practically every politician I know has done all he or she could to be everything other than a “poor man”.
Those who came from poverty, proudly herald the wonders of their rise from “humble beginnings”. They work their tails off to ensure that their children never experience the life of “the poor”.
Almost all send their kids to private school, some even to boarding school and most work to send them off to college when they are done.
None of them want their children to be numbered among “the poor”; not for economic or political reasons.
It is a matter of fantastic irony that those who love the so-called “poor man” at election time want to be anything in life but one of them.
It is also laughable that the so-called “poor man” doesn’t want to be the very thing that politicians fawn over him for.
When “the poor man” talks about his plight it is not because it is something that he wants for himself; it is because he is lamenting it.
The “poor man” wants out of his plight, and he hopes, albeit fruitlessly, that his politician or political party can get him out.
The hope for a job – a government job, for a house – a government house, and for a contract – a government contract, is a hope for a way out of poverty.
The poor man also doesn’t want his children to be what he is. He wants his children to excel his circumstances.
In fact, he would gladly see his children rise to be those very same “big wig” rich people so often demonized at election time.
He wants his children to have big jobs paying high incomes; a nice successful business; a big house; and a generally excellent life.
When they get all of these things, what would be the appropriate term for them? Not “poor man” for sure. If they achieve this life, should they be demonized as having abandoned their station? Or would they be looked on with pride for having realized their potential? Wouldn’t they look like that undefined Bahamian dream?
Ah, the “Bahamian dream”. The good life of enough, plenty, or achievement.
It is what we tell our children to strive for.
It is what Sir Lynden Pindling held up to our people in those early days when he and his team sought to break the chains of colonialism and grow a Bahamian middle-class.
It is what almost every person who occupied political office in this country achieved for himself or herself and their children and hold out to our nation as the life for which to strive.
And who would tell any of us to cap the level of achievement we can have in our nation?
Who would tell the young man or woman in The Bahamas, “don’t strive to be a millionaire, just stop at thousand-aire.”
Or who would say to them, “Don’t try to build the biggest law firm, accounting firm, wholesale business, gasoline station, real estate business or construction business?
“Just stick with being small because the ‘small man’ is the center of the political universe at election time.”
Never! Never would we be so stupid to say this. Yet, at election time, small becomes big and big becomes small; achievement becomes taboo and underachievement becomes main stream.
At election time, ignorance becomes popular and education becomes woeful. At election time, the poor become appealing and the rich become appalling. (Except when it is time to fund the campaign of course).
I am sorry, it’s time to stop trying to outwit the truth.
Poverty is no virtue, though it is not a crime. If you are poor you have nothing of which to be ashamed, but it is something above which you should seek desperately to rise.
And yes, the poor deserve the attention of their leaders but so do the rich, who are also citizens of the nation.
Maybe, if political leaders stop using and coddling the poor, they might find a vision for elevating them from this state.
Maybe if they listen to both those who achieve, just as they pretend to listen to those who don’t, they might find better ways to make more of the latter rise above their situations.
Poverty is not cute or special or favored. It just happens to be a stubborn reality that we struggle to eradicate.
When Jesus said the poor you have with you always, he was not saying to treat them as a special class.
In fact, at the time, he was saying to Judas, his betrayer, don’t try to feign compassion by using the poor.
Rather, he was saying, Judas should strive, like Mary who was anointing his feet with expensive perfume, for the more important thing, a higher life of serving God and Christ.
I trust that this upcoming election “the poor man” will not allow himself to be a pawn in our political game of pandering, but I fear I may be trusting in vain.
We shall see.
• Zhivargo Laing is a Bahamian economic consultant and former Cabinet minister who represented the Marco City constituency in the House of Assembly.
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