Has this been thought through?

 

There is no harm in analyzing how a $50m annual cost can be reduced and efforts to get people back into work must be applauded.

But Sports Minister Zane DeSilva’s remarks on reviewing Financial Assistance provided little clarity on how it will actually be done and risked stigmatizing – and worrying –  a large section of our community.

daily-mail-benefit-skivers

Mr DeSilva talked of an overreliance on financial assistance and a ‘culture of entitlement’ which he said had to end and while there are those who will milk the system, Kelly Hunt, from the Coalition for the Protection of Children, got it right when she 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.”

By saying

“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”

the Minister uses exactly that broad-brush approach which risks stigmatizing a great many people, which can only be counter-productive. I wonder, also, how it plays with people who are more likely to vote for a labour government.

Despite announcements in the Throne Speech and a press conference, we are also none the wiser as to how Government will achieve a reduction in the number of people claiming financial assistance.

This:

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”.

is true and desperately needs to change and hopefully a review will help solve this issue, which is by no means unique to Bermuda.

We know Mr DeSilva wants to tie training and education to getting financial aid from Government and we know that he expects “corporate Bermuda’ to dig into its pockets to help, but after that there is a real lack of detail for something as sensitive as this.

He says:

“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”.

But that is a very simplistic view of a very complex issue and raises a lot of questions:

What happens if a person resists this initiative – is it three strikes and you are out? Is any skills upgrade OK? How will that be managed? How will a person be assessed? What if a person still cannot get a job, will financial assistance be restored? Are the right facilities and resources available for this sudden influx of new students?

There are more questions, such as: where do this many jobs exist?

The demographics of those on financial assistance is another issue that was not addressed. Some time ago, in an article for The Royal Gazette, Sheelagh Cooper, chairwoman of the Coalition for the Protection of Children, said that 2,679 people were on financial assistance in 2016.

The article said:

Ms Cooper added that the total number of able-bodied unemployed and low-income earners nearly equaled the number of senior recipients — 969 seniors compared with 862 able-bodied recipients. A further 848 people are disabled recipients of Government financial assistance.  (I have highlighted the parts in bold.)

When the Minister says:

“Some of the folks that are able-bodied and don’t have their GED, we’re going to get them their GED.”

How will that help seniors?

Assuming that the seniors are able bodied, when the Minister says:

“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”

how will that apply to seniors? Will they be given computer programming courses?

How will the 848 disabled recipients be helped? What sort of jobs will they get? Will ‘corporate Bermuda’ come to their rescue as well?

On ‘corporate Bermuda’, the Minister says:

 “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.”

Has the Minister noticed that so-called ‘corporate Bermuda’ has been downsizing for some time? Does he know that figures show there is enough empty office space for approximately 4,000 people? How, exactly, does he expect ‘corporate Bermuda’ to help?

The cost of employing someone in Bermuda is also high. In a market where jobs are still being shed, you cannot realistically expect a company to substantially increase its overheads without seeing a corresponding rise in business.

It sounds very much like the culture of entitlement he wants to end, only this time it is not coming from an individual, it is coming from a Minister who seems to take it for granted that businesses will step into the breach.

That kind of sense of entitlement must raise an eyebrow among CEOs. I wonder what it does to those employees who have lost their jobs in ‘corporate Bermuda’?

It is early in the process, I agree, but if a Minister chooses to hold a press conference to address an issue as sensitive as this, it is I think, fair to expect some details. Without them a lot of people must now be both vexed and worried.

Getting people back to work and giving everyone a good standard of living by providing the right legislative and policy framework is a key task of Government, but as it stands now, it appears that this has not been thought through at all.

 

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