Government welfare programs need assistance

Former U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey once said, “The moral test of a government is how it treats those who are at the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”

According to any of those standards, it is difficult to assign a passing grade to the Cayman Islands government.

Certainly our officials have been spending vast sums on various “safety nets,” which in this case are as porous as the term implies. A new report from the Office of the Auditor General shows that public assistance programs account for nearly 10 percent of government’s core budget, totaling more than $50 million for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

The problem with social services in Cayman isn’t the amount of money being spent, necessarily, but how that money is being spent. Auditor General Alastair Swarbrick has reported that individual assistance programs, providing money or benefits directly to Caymanians, “are operating without objectives and there is no measurement of their performance.”

He said, “Government has therefore failed to ensure that programs are helping those in need and achieving results.”

While we at the Compass are no proponents of big government spending or welfare dependency, we do support taxpayer-funded social assistance programs that are aimed at helping people who are truly in need (and only those people). The rationale for our stance is moral, practical and philosophical: Why would we humans bother to band together as an organized society if not for the very reason of the “strong” protecting the “weak”?

In Cayman and elsewhere, too often it is the weakest among us who suffer unnecessarily because of the actions of the strong, whether it be outright exploitation, or, more commonly, simple neglect or mismanagement.

Consider, for example, the government’s affordable housing projects — the units in West Bay that have been deemed unsuitable for occupation, yet remain occupied; or the newer homes in Bodden Town that have remained vacant since they were built.

Or look to the litany of shortcomings in government assistance programs documented in the auditor general’s report, including: “political direction” as to who receives public assistance, a lack of set criteria for who should get assistance, “no coordinated strategy” for ensuring that people in need receive help in a timely way, and that budgets for social welfare programs were based on previous years’ budgets and not on the actual level of need for the programs.

“Government has not taken the necessary steps over the years to ensure it is providing assistance in the right amount to the right people at the right time, and thus [is] ultimately failing the people they are supposed to serve,” Auditor General Swarbrick said.

Rather than a properly managed public welfare system, Cayman has a patchwork of programs that, in part, act as an institutional disincentive to gainful employment by the able in mind and body, and foster a culture of government dependence (in a country where, we remind our readers, many hundreds of foreigners hold work permits for jobs that require little or no prior experience or skills, and who, while making “low” wages, do not receive public assistance).

Every dollar that is given to someone who does not really need it, is a dollar that could have been given to someone who does.

Make no mistake: There are thousands of Caymanians, particularly the young, the old, the disabled and the infirm, who are in dire need of help and who would greatly benefit from public assistance in the purest sense of the term.

Many of those people do not receive the help they need to break the so-called cycle of poverty, because our social services system itself is broken.