In The News

Making the Case for a Living Income Red Thread

By Stabroek News Staff

(This is one of a series of fortnightly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guyana and the Caribbean)

To mark International Women’s Day, this week’s column draws on a Red Thread leaflet, which makes the case for higher old age pensions and public assistance.

We know that public assistance has been increased from $2470 to $4500 and old age pensions from $3,675 to $6,000. As we see with the stories below, even with the increases, the gap between households’ total incomes and what they need to survive is so high that many are barely surviving.

The household economy of P,

on public assistance

P is a 47 yr old single mother with a disability that confines her to a wheelchair and who is also hypertensive. She and her family – two children aged 12 and 17 – were left homeless after the 2005 flood and were living on the roadside in a shack built with pieces of discarded boards. Eight months ago they moved into their own home that was built for her by a charity. Her regular monthly income comes from two sources: public assistance of $2470 for herself and $2470 for her daughter; and payment of $6000 plus some basic food items to care for three children aged 2 – 5 years old whose mother works as a live-in domestic worker.

P augments her monthly income by filling occasional orders to make crocheted chair backs at Christmas time, monetary assistance from her women’s group to go to clinic and buy medication, and occasional assistance from friends. Sometimes her son – who had to drop out of school due to money worries and is now unemployed – catches fish in the nearby trench.

P buys what she considers the main food items such as rice, sugar, cooking oil, salt, flour, soap, and kerosene oil but she cannot afford items such as milk, fish, and meat. She tries to cook enough food in the mornings to make a snack for her daughter to take to school, plus lunch and dinner. If it isn’t enough there is no dinner. She has to regularly cut some things, for example, not send her daughter to school sometimes so she can buy food. She tries her best to keep her daughter in school by putting up a portion of the money she earns to pay for transportation but sometimes it is really not doable. The child often has to do without food or schoolbooks. Her daughter was out of school for a few months in 2007 and because of this, the public assistance P receives for her was delayed. She has not received any public assistance for her daughter since June 2007.

Since her disability makes it impossible for her to use minibuses, if P has no money for a taxi (which is usually the case) she has to get her son push her for miles when he is available. If not, she has to authorize people to collect the money on her behalf, which means waiting until they have time to go.

The household economy of K,

wife of man receiving old age pension

K, aged 54, is a mother of one son who lives by himself. She lives with her husband in their own house. She is diabetic and hypertensive. Her husband is a pensioner and he gets NIS and old age pension, amounting to $23,500/month.

In addition to being a housewife, K has a small business that she operates from two markets. In one of the markets her stall is way down at the back and people seldom go there. Many days she sells nothing. Due to this she decided to sell at the other market but did not give up the first stall since she uses it to store her goods.

She used to sell six days a week but some days she only sold enough to pay her stall rent which is $200 per day and her transportation to and from the market ($1720 a month), so she plans to start selling only on Saturdays. Her sales last Saturday only amounted to $3000. She doesn’t have a permanent stall at the second market so she has to find a space to sell each time.

K also rears chickens and ducks to get extra income to offset expenses. Her kitchen garden used to supply her with greens for the home but was destroyed by excessive rain. The only surviving crops are some boulanger plants and some celery. She collects medication from GPHC but prefers to buy it rather than paying passage to go for it and spending a lot of time waiting when she could be trying to make money.

In these two examples, it is clear that the women caring for these families contribute to the economy. The problem is that all their work is either unwaged or very low-waged. Until this is changed, public assistance and old age pensions should go much further towards taking up the slack.

The real cost to the national economy we should all care about is the cost not only these families but the whole economy pays when so many have to choose, for example, between whether to send their children to school or to give them food to eat.

We understand that when you add together all the people on old age pensions and public assistance the cost to the national economy will be high. However, the task is not to say that the national economy cannot afford higher public assistance and old age pensions, but to begin with what people need and then see where the money can be found to meet their needs.