Urban Poverty in the Caribbean

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Urban Poverty in the Caribbean

In a global environment defined by great upheaval and disorder, the small-island states of the Caribbean have largely been spared the worst aspects of the upheaval and violence afflicting other parts of the world. Indeed, in a world where war, social violence, genocide, state collapse, and terror are commonplace, the English-speaking and politically independent states of the Caribbean remain exceptional for their low levels of social disorder, high levels of human development, and unity of democratic governance. The stereotype of the Caribbean as an idyllic tropical paradise where tourists and visitors can enjoy their leisure time in politically free and fairly well-governed societies is in fact not too far from the truth. Political stability, democracy, and high levels of social well-being remain defining features of the region.

It is also true, however, that upheaval in the economic, political, and cultural structures of world society is dramatically undermining these positive inheritances and altering this condition of Caribbean exceptionalism. For example, North American media images depicting dissident youth cultures, hedonistic lifestyles, and the subversion of conventional values are now common fare in the Caribbean. Television commercials and media programming celebrating leisure, sex, and conspicuous consumption helped undermine commitment to thrift, personal modesty, and the value of education and hard work. Consequently, for Caribbean youths today, prize-winning high school students are no longer the role models; they have been replaced by the gold chain-wearing drug dealer and the gangster with a fancy car. The emulation of these role models by unemployed youth, along with the easy availability of drugs and guns, has led to an increase in antisocial behaviors by youths across the region.

This contagion is apparent in the explosion in urban street crime. Kidnappings, armed robberies, extortion, and murder are now commonplace in the larger islands of the Caribbean. For example, Jamaica, with a population of 2.6 million, had more than 1,200 murders in 2004one of the highest rates in the western hemisphere. That same year there were 164 kidnappings in Trinidad, a record for that country. That the smaller islands with tiny populations had fewer incidents of crime did little to diminish concern about this epidemic of violence and its destructive effects on urban communities.

While the link between poverty and crime remains complicated, there is little doubt that globalization is influencing both crime and urban poverty across the English-speaking Caribbean. Indeed, because of the highly interactive nature of the globalization process, both the dynamics of Caribbean societies and the ecology of their inner cities resemble patterns in the advanced industrial societies of western Europe and North America.

Today, inner-city Caribbean communities duplicate almost exactly the sociology of urban poverty in the United States. For example, the city of Kingston, Jamaica, particularly its western precincts, is known for its intense poverty, especially among youths aged fifteen to twenty-four. Lacking education and bereft of skills, urban youths in Jamaica make up a significant proportion of the 18 percent of the population that fell below the poverty line in 2002.

Furthermore, having lost the diverse class composition of earlier decadesin which the unemployed poor lived in the same neighborhoods with unionized workers, domestics, and middle-class professionalswhole areas of West Kingston have been transformed into segregated ghettos in which the poor are cut off from the wider society.

The same is true of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and its poorer eastern precincts, where joblessness, crime, and poverty afflict residents, most of whom are deprived of family and community ties. Decrepit housing, poor drainage, and squalor in impoverished hillside communities such as Levantville only aggravate this situation.

Much like the physical and social isolation of urban ghetto residents in the United States, chronic joblessness of poor residents, the collapse of family and community life, and the erosion of conventional values are now pervasive features of urban poverty in the Caribbean. Global upheaval, and its nexus with the political economy of these dynamic islands, has made Caribbean societiesand particularly the disadvantaged populations in the capital citiespoorer, more violent, and more ungovernable than they were a generation ago. Reports indicate that poverty in the Caribbean persists despite significant economic growth in countries like Trinidad and Barbados. Paradoxically, Trinidad's current oil boom and double-digit economic growth rate have done little to reduce high unemployment and poverty rates there.

Although the incidence of poverty is greatest in the Caribbean countryside, poverty is felt much more intensely in the urban areas, particularly in the capital cities of Kingston, Jamaica; Georgetown, Guyana; and Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. In these and other islands, poverty rates remain high. Surveys indicate that even though the rate of poverty has declined in recent years, 21 percent of the population in Trinidad and Tobago lived below the poverty line in 2003. In Guyana, the poorest country in the Anglophone Caribbean, the rate was 35 percent.

Failing economies have been a major cause of poverty in the region. Low worker productivity, low educational achievement, limited economic diversification, and scarcity of productive investment beyond a few economic enclaves have historically restricted economic growth and curbed employment in the region. As economic growth lagged in the late 1970s, and as export earnings fell in the 1980s and after, Caribbean governments typically resorted to deficit spending and high levels of borrowing. But due to poor export earnings and an increased debt load, deficit spending became unsustainable. The result throughout the region was an imposition of austerity measures and the adoption of structural adjustment policies.

This retrenchment proved to be a double-edged sword, however. Fiscal discipline certainly helped cut ballooning deficits and reduced inflation rates, but because of high interest rates and cuts in state spending, these very measures also curbed investment, dampened economic growth, fed unemployment, and spurred poverty rates across the region. Thus, throughout the region, tight fiscal management did not result in new jobs or economic growth. In instances of extreme structural adjustment, as in Jamaica and Guyana, such measures merely drove more persons into poverty and crime.

In an increasingly competitive global environment, the structural dependence of Caribbean economies and low worker productivity contributed to these worsening social conditions. Lagging income from agricultural exports and rising prices for critical imports, such as oil and manufactured goods, highlight Caribbean dependence in the international economy. Poor export earnings in turn hamper investment in equipment and human resources, and these together lower wages and employment. The result is low worker productivity that reinforces this vicious cycle. This nexus of structural dependence and low worker productivity is the proximate source of urban poverty in the Caribbean. While poor governance, undeveloped human capital, and a lack of institutional capacity have aggravated the incidence of poverty in the region, the key determinants were economic. In sum, poorly performing economies within a global context of increased competition fed and sustained poverty in the Caribbean.

Nevertheless, this erosion in the quality of life of Caribbean populations did not lead to gross malnutrition or starvation, as is the case in some poverty-stricken parts of the world. Rather, the extent of urban poverty and the profile of the urban poor in the Anglophone Caribbean reveal a far more ambiguous and nuanced condition.

For example, successive annual reports on human development in the world have repeatedly placed English-speaking Caribbean nations in the ranks of countries with high human development because of their low levels of poverty, as well as high literacy and life expectancy rates. These countries made investments in human development in such areas as health and education and had enough economic growth to afford their populations both longevity and a decent standard of living. Barbados, for example, has for several years been the best performer in the Anglo-phone Caribbean on the United Nations Human Development Index.

Yet, despite this achievement, countries in the Anglo-phone Caribbean are neither wealthy nor immune to having populations living in abject poverty. Data on these economies reveal that despite a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of US$16,691 in the Bahamas in 2003 and US$15,290 in Barbados in 2004, the region's average GDP per capita in 2003 was a mere US$5,366. After Haiti, Guyana was the poorest country in the wider Caribbean, with a per capita GDP of US$911 in 2003. (This did mark an increase from the low of US$300 in 1992.) Indeed, dire poverty and unsustainable debt in Guyana qualified this country for relief under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, established by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in 1996.

These variations point to the wide gap between prosperity and want in a region full of paradoxes. Thus, for example, Trinidadwith its booming oil and petrochemical sectorsexperienced record economic growth rates in the early twenty-first century. Yet despite a spectacular rate of growth of over 10 percent in 2004, with huge revenues generated by the oil and petrochemicals industries, these breakthroughs did not create jobs or reduce the incidence of poverty. As in Trinidad, improved inflows of revenue based on exports and investments (the Holy Grail of Caribbean development) have done little to alleviate poverty and unemployment in the region.

In the early twenty-first century, then, the region has experienced rising but comparatively moderate rates of poverty, with inner-city communities and blighted urban areas experiencing harsh conditions. Women, children, and young people have been the victims, as they make up a high proportion of those trapped in poverty. Throughout the region, the fifteen to twenty-five age group has had the lowest level of educational achievement and the highest rate of unemployment. Though better off when compared with poverty-stricken nations elsewhere, the Anglo-phone Caribbean has several countries with particularly deep pockets of urban poverty.

But even here, paradox is apparent: the level of material want in the Caribbean has been buffered by protective circumstances that rescue the poor-but-not-indigent urban population from great material want. These alleviating circumstances include massive poverty-relief programs throughout the region, significant remittances from relatives abroad, and poor people turning to crime and petty entrepreneurship in the informal, underground economy. Together with extensive migration away from the region, these measures have tempered the worst effects of poverty and economic hardship in the Caribbean.

See also Caribbean Commission; Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM); International Relations of the Anglophone Caribbean; Media and Identity in the Caribbean; Mortality and Morbidity, Latin America and the Caribbean


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obika gray (2005)

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Urban Poverty in the Caribbean

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