In a sermon at the American National Cathedral in Washington in March of 1968, the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about the scourge of poverty and said this:
“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”
There were, in Dr. King’s day as there are today, many parts of this globe where poverty is pervasive and millions are born only to live short and brutish lives in its unrelenting grip.
But Dr. King was addressing a congregation in the most technologically advanced and prosperous society in the world, indeed in all of human history, a society that was and still is, plagued with pockets of poverty.
The Commonwealth of The Bahamas has not yet achieved the status of a developed country. Nevertheless, we are fortunate to be able to enjoy a standard of living that is second only to that of the developed countries in our hemisphere.
Our resources on a per capita basis are nowhere near those of the United States of America; still my colleagues and I believe that we have a political mandate and a moral duty to alleviate poverty in these islands; and we also have the will so to do.
Furthermore, as I reported to the United Nations General Assembly last week, the achievement of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, including the alleviation of poverty, is simply the policy of my Government.
In my Budget Communication in May of this year I referred to my Government’s determination to cushion the harshness of the impact of international turbulence upon our citizens, especially those in the lower income brackets. This was in keeping with action taken by us in 1992 when at the beginning of our first term in office we acted to increase assistance to the neediest in our society. We improved benefits available under the National Insurance Programme to widows and orphans, increased non-contributory old-age pensions, expanded assistance to the needy and extended the school lunch programme to include increased numbers of children from disadvantaged families in New Providence, Grand Bahama and around the Family Islands.
It was in keeping with that policy of responsiveness to the needs of our people that caused us recently to take steps to bring relief to many Bahamian families who have been so negatively impacted by the skyrocketing cost of energy that their supply of electricity had been turned off.
In the May 2008 Budget Communication I also announced that we had made provisions for an increase in the allocation for the Department of Social Services to permit meaningful increases in all areas of relief for the poor.
When we came to office in May of 2007, the annual allocation for the Department of Social Services was $26.4 million.
In the 2007/08 Budget, our first budget upon returning to office last year, we increased that allocation to $31.8 million, an increase of $5.4 million or 20.5 per cent. Some $3 million of this was specifically earmarked for poverty alleviation.
Again this year, In the 2008/09 Budget we provided a further increase in the Department’s allocation amounting to some $7 million or 22 per cent. We did that so as to increase assistance to the poor by almost 45 per cent or $13 million over a two-year period.
I am, therefore, happy to announce a new schedule of increases in assistance to the poor. These increases will come into effect on October 1st, 2008. A copy of the new schedule showing current benefits and increases will be submitted along with this Communication. The changes are as follows:
Assistance with utility payments (electricity and water) based on the production of billing and verification of need has been increased from a one time assistance of $300 to payments totalling up to $600 per year.
The Department of Social Services will also collaborate with the Urban Renewal Programme to assist low income families to replace regular electric bulbs with energy-efficient bulbs.
Provision of uniforms and shoes to children of low income families has been increased by 15 per cent.
Assistance for funeral expenses for low income families has been increased from $550 to $650.
Fire relief replacement of basic needs such as clothing and household items has been increased from a one-time payment of $2,000 to $2,500.
Monthly payments to persons medically certified as being unable to work for a temporary period and who are not eligible for National Insurance benefits or assistance payments have been increased from a minimum of $120 to a maximum of $160 to: a minimum of $140 for a single person, $160 for a person with one dependant, $180 for two dependants, $200 for three dependants, $220 for four dependants, and $240 for five or more dependants.
Rental assistance for low income or unemployed persons who are facing eviction has been increased from a one-time payment of $300 to payments totalling up to $1,200 per year. Payments to be made directly to the landlord.
Minor repairs to owner-occupied homes of seniors and persons with disabilities increased from one-time payment of $2,000 to $2,500.
Monthly payments for children in foster homes have been increased from $160 to $200 for a child up to 13 years of age, and from $200 to $240 for a child between 14 and 18 years of age.
Monthly food assistance based on need for a specified period has been increased from $50, $60, $70 and $80 to: $80 for a single person, $100 for a person with one dependant, $120 for two dependants, $140 for three dependants, $160 for four dependants and $180 for five or more dependants.
Emergency food assistance grants have been increased from a maximum of $50 to a maximum of $100 based on emergency needs.
A monthly allowance for children with disabilities under the age of 16, who are ineligible for benefits or assistance payments from National Insurance and whose families are having financial difficulties, has been increased from $100 for one child, $180 for two children, $240 for three children to: $120 per child.
Work assistance payment for an unemployed needy person in a job providing charitable or community services has been increased from $190 per week to $210 per week, which is the government’s minimum wage.
The monies to pay these increases have been included in the 2008/09 budget allocation of the Department of Social Services.
The Department of Social Services is also holding adequate sums from this year’s allocation to facilitate the extension of the temporary work assistance payment programme.
I believe that the Bahamian people will welcome these increases in assistance to the poor and disadvantaged among us.
I trust that none of us who happens to be a little or a great deal better off will begrudge them.
I hope that we will all thank God that we are in a position to reach out to those who live permanently or occasionally find themselves on the margins of our society.