Our country’s social services are a disservice — to the Caymanians who need public assistance, and to the welfare officers who deliver it.
In testimony before the Public Accounts Committee, Needs Assessment Unit Director Tamara Hurlston described a broken system of dysfunction and unaccountability. The unit’s 24 staff members are being overwhelmed by thousands of clients, many of whom wait months to be vetted for eligibility for assistance … and some who stand in line outside the building, for hours on end under the hot sun, in hopes of having their paperwork pushed forward.
Remember these are the poorest of the poor in the Cayman Islands, the disabled, the elderly — Caymanians who have been left out of the general economic cornucopia brought forth by the “Cayman miracle.”
We are not advocates of government largesse and dependency, but we support the principle that a society with means (which Cayman certainly possesses) has the obligation to care for people who are truly in need (and only those people). Is this how we treat the most defenseless among us?
At the very least, even if they do not end up qualifying for material assistance, each applicant certainly deserves to interact with an efficient and smooth-running government apparatus that is professional, timely and fair.
What is going on in regard to the Needs Assessment Unit amounts to nothing less than cruel and unusual punishment — on both sides of the door, for applicants and staffers.
Compounding the inherent unacceptability of the situation is its sheer magnitude. Government spends nearly 10 percent of its core budget on public assistance programs, totaling nearly $50 million for the 2013-14 fiscal year. Currently, the Needs Assessment Unit serves 2,500 Caymanian families — which, based on Census figures, extrapolates to some 7,500 individuals in those households. (For perspective, in the year 1952, the total population of our islands was 7,651 people.)
Using the rough estimate of 7,500, that means nearly one-quarter of the current Caymanian population, which stands at 33,447 according to the 2014 Compendium of Statistics, receives some form of public assistance. That number dwarfs the 1,200 Caymanians classified as “unemployed” at last count.
(As an aside, consider that some 4,400 Caymanians work for government entities. Assuming each of those civil servants has one or two dependents, that would mean one-half to two-thirds of all Caymanians are dependent on the government for sustenance — whether through receiving public assistance or being on the public payroll. Mull that over for a moment as you ponder Cayman’s future.)
Ms. Hurlston, the NAU director, is crying out for help from lawmakers. She says she has 24 staff members, but really needs 40. We pride ourselves on being among the fiercest budget hawks in Cayman, but we recognize an area of under-investment when we spot it.
Give Ms. Hurlston the resources to hire the staff she requires. She knows what she needs. Lawmakers and ministry officials should not try to second-guess her. Do not appoint a commission, committee or study group.
Top officials have appointed Ms. Hurlston to head up this agency. Either they trust her — or they need to remove her. We suggest that they give her what she needs, allow her to hire who she wants, then follow up on the NAU’s performance at regular intervals and adjudge her decisions accordingly.
Right now, all they have been doing is ignoring her, and by extension the thousands of needy Caymanians she’s trying to serve.