One adult living on less than around TT$1,230 per month is considered to be living below the poverty line in T&T.
This is according to a mathematical equation arrived at by the Ministry of Social Development and applied to the Survey of Living Conditions (2014).
The poverty line represents the amount an individual needs to meet basic necessities, described as a combination of the minimum expenditure needed for a nutritionally adequate diet as well as the amount needed for basic non-food necessities.
In 2005, this figure was TT$655 but was adjusted for inflation in 2012.
For the majority of people interviewed by the Guardian in four communities in T&T over the past few weeks, TT$1,230 was a little less than the amount they spent on food.
“That’s how much I spend on food for the month, for me and my two boys,” said 34-year-old, Aneesa Jantie, a single mother who earns $3,600 a month working as an administrative assistant at a non-profit organisation.
She lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Arouca and her outward appearance to people on the street may suggest that she lives comfortably, but the only furniture in her apartment is a second-hand fridge and stove, donated by a family member, and two mattresses, one for her and one for her boys.
The family’s clothes, which she washes by hand, sits in garbage bags on the floor, because plans to purchase more furniture were delayed by her children getting ill, or needing money to participate in school activities and school payments for herself.
She also juggles her bills, paying some one month and others another month.
“My boys asked me, mommy are we poor? I was shocked. For a while, I didn’t know what to tell them. I eventually told them that we weren’t poor, but that things were hard for us right now regarding money. They notice things though, like drinking water with sugar cause we have no milk or going to school with a hole in the soles of their shoes because I have no money to buy another pair right now.”
Poverty and Women
Stephanie Leitch, director of Womantra, a feminist, civil society organisation, said women are challenged by poverty on levels that are greater than men.
“The poorest people throughout the world are women and children. I think it could be even worse locally, where there is less opportunities for entrepreneurship.”
Leitch said women take on the brunt of the responsibility for care of families, dependents and elderly, which leaves them at risk for the effects of poverty.
“The Caribbean has the highest majority of single parent families, and these families are led by women. It means the poverty has worsened. A lot of times they do not have the support of male relatives who support their children. They are in charge of most of the care and responsibility. They are overlooked for jobs because of child rearing, they are asked questions: If they are married? How recently? If they have kids? These questions can determine whether they even get a job.”
She said working single mothers often had to take time off to take care of family needs, which can have an impact on salaries.
Recently, the Ministry of Gender launched a programme for low-income women, to teach them life skills such as planting a garden.
Leitch said it was a positive indication that the Government was taking stock of what was going on.
For Jantie, trying to improve her financial situation presents many obstacles.
She left the father of her children because of his abuse. Today he has no contact with the children and she has no idea where he is.
She applied for government assistance but was told that she had to find the father of her children. Rather than expose herself to further abuse, she declined.
“We are making out though. The boys go to school. I go to school and work and eventually we will have a better life. I will be able to provide for their needs.”
She makes sure her boys eat every night, although most nights the meals are the same, roast bake and plantain, butter or cheese.
T&T working on decreasing poverty
At a United Nations review in early may, T&T Ambassador Eden Charles told reviewers T&T had continuously addressed extreme levels of poverty.
“In light of the government’s commitment at the last Universal Periodic Review to implement the recommendation to combat extreme poverty, the Ministry of the People and Social Development (now known as the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services) has embarked on several initiatives to ensure that persons of low income and below the poverty line have access to basic goods and services,” Charles said.
He said the National Social Development Programme (NSDP) was a social intervention strategy that was established to provide assistance and to bring socio-economic relief to vulnerable communities and families.
“These services include improving water supplies, electrification and lighting of community facilities, house wiring assistance, provision of materials for sanitary plumbing and minor house repair assistance.”
Charles also listed the Biometric Smart Card System which will allow people on Senior Citizens’ Pension,
Public Assistance and Disability Assistance Grants to utilize their cards to purchase food from participating merchants utilizing the biometrically enabled Point of Sale Terminals as a measure being developed by Government to help the poor.
More Data Needed
The Caribbean Development Bank estimates poverty levels in the region at 21 per cent.
Measurable, comparable data for countries across the region, however, are virtually non-existent, as national surveys use very different base lines and take place during different time periods, where there may be different economic conditions.
The data in Table 1 cannot be compared due to variations in purchasing power for each nation and the base line used to determine poverty levels. In Bahamas the base line for the annual poverty line since the last recorded study, in 2001, moved from BSD$2,863 to BSD $4,247.
The reduction of poverty is the first of 20 Sustainable Development Goals signed on to by T&T at the United Nations in 2015.
According to United Nations Development Programme country representative Richard Blewitt, T&T has been functioning without a policy for poverty reduction and is only now taking steps to establish a firm policy.
In an interview with the Guardian, Blewitt said the UNDP had partnered with the Ministry of Social Development and was running several poverty dialogues in both Trinidad and Tobago.
“Under the last administration, it was hard to get traction on a policy on poverty. Under this administration it is different, there seems to be a focus on poverty reduction.
“The idea is to build a national poverty strategy for the country.”
Blewitt said he was optimistic that a poverty policy could be developed within the next four or five months.
“I know the Government is working on a mitigation strategy during the current economic crisis, and we are willing to offer technical support.”
Blewitt said while money had been spent on social programmes over the years, what was needed was more effective targeting of assistance and a strategy which addressed poverty comprehensively.
This strategy should include multi-dimensional poverty research, with a measuring basket of vulnerabilities which would include access to proper education for children, disabilities, healthcare and nutrition, among other things.
He said the country had a history of looking at poverty in terms of income.
“The Survey of Living Conditions is not as comprehensive as a multi-dimensional measuring tool, which is more sophisticated and useful to policy makers and provides a clearer picture of poverty.
Across Trinidad, people avoid using the word poor and resist the idea that they are living in poverty.
Instead they use words and phrases like “getting by,” “need a little help,” “hustling.”
In the words of 22-year-old Kings Wharf resident, Marvin Victor: “We not poor but we struggling,”
Victor spoke to the Guardian, while sitting on faded plastic chairs, outside of the 16-by-20 foot wooden house he shares with his parents.
The house, not much bigger than some bedrooms, was shared by his parents and two other siblings growing up.
“I mean, it hard, but I’m not going to use the word poor. I wouldn’t use that word.”
While he may not use the word, Victor’s circumstances and income, shared among the members of his household, could mean he is living close to the poverty line in T&T.
The Survey of Living Conditions (2014) which shows an increase in poverty from 16.5 per cent to almost 25 per cent, also details the demographics of people living in poverty in T&T.
The survey has not yet been laid in Parliament, but is expected to inform government policy aimed at decreasing poverty levels across the country.
Victor, like many other residents living on the water’s edge, a few minutes away from San Fernando’s bus terminal and water taxi, works in the fishing depot.
His job includes distributing fish to groceries in the area, but sitting at home around midday with a female friend, he admits work has slowed down.
When it isn’t slow, Victor says he makes about $1,000 a week, the majority of which goes towards purchasing food for him and his parents.
“Food more important than anything else. For the three of us, about 700 per week goes toward food. I try to save a little bit but with the way work slowed down it’s hard.”
His food bill includes the occasional fast food purchase as well as luxuries like alcohol.
Victor’s family doesn’t pay cable, Internet or electricity bills because they have none. Like most people in the village, they use candles or lamps.
The village only recently received a shared water tank, prior to elections, when their vote was being courted by San Fernando West MP Faris Al-Rawi. The village is also situated in the area designated for development of a San Fernando Waterfront project.
“I need to see him. You know how much appointment I have to make to see that man. For election he didn't make any appointment to see me. He say he would pass through.
“I want the same things as everybody else, a house, car, to not be struggling all the time. I want better than this.”
Victor was born at the San Fernando General Hospital and grew up on the wharf. His playground was the overgrown bushes, the uneven roadway and the ocean, 15 feet away from his front door.
“It wasn’t bad, we just always needed things.”
The need for basic things like food, clothes, and shoes to go to school or money to use for medical purchases was always present.
After attending Coffee Boys Primary School and Marabella Junior Secondary, Victor left school at the age of 12 and got a job cleaning fish, so he could help out with family needs and fend for himself.
Economist says spending inequitable
With over TT$25 billion spent on social programmes in the past year, and significant decreases in unemployment, the question arises as to how poverty could increase so drastically.
In a telephone interview, former Planning Minister Bhoe Tewarie described the figure as ridiculous and impossible but economist Dr Vaalmiki Arjoon says it boils down to an inequitable distribution of wealth.
“It may be that the money is only finding its way to certain sectors, so that while wealth is increasing for some people, others are not benefiting,” Arjoon said in an interview.
“People who work in certain sectors like the energy industry will receive more than someone in another sector, so it is not a surprise that there are high levels of poverty.”
On the banks of a swamp in Ortoire Village, Thecla Williams stays at home to take care of her disabled son and seven other children, one of whom is her granddaughter.
Williams, who has no one else to look after her disabled son, receives a grant of $1,800 per month from the State.
To supplement this, she digs up chip chip from the Mayaro shore to sell on the roadway. On some days, Williams sells brooms which she makes at home.
“Sometimes I have no money to send them to school, so they don’t go to school. I had to take my granddaughter from where she was living because they were abusing her but that made things harder because the Cepep job that I was doing then, the contractor let go all the workers.”
She is squatting on government land and frequently complains to her neighbour because runoff from his cesspit runs under and at the side of her wooden house.
“He doesn’t care. He said I’m a squatter and I have no rights but it was either live here or be homeless on the streets.”