Premier Alden McLaughlin struck a bold stance last week when he declared that the majority of the Cayman Islands government’s social services programs are “failing, are not at all fit for purpose and are not addressing the issue.”
Just the pronouncement of reform – and certainly any follow-through action – may well generate considerable pushback from the social services sector and many recipients of government’s largesse. But it’s something that needed to be said, and must be done.
Without dramatic intervention, the lack of purpose, cohesiveness and accountability in our current social services system is on course to develop into a full-blown, self-perpetuating and potentially country-destroying “welfare state.” In taking up the challenge of change, the premier has our full support.
It is no secret that government’s social services need a serious overhaul. A 2015 audit found that the Needs Assessment Unit, which handles most of government’s social welfare programs, lacked an overall strategy, priorities or clear definition of desired outcomes. The department, it appears, is understaffed and overworked and, most importantly, operating without clear policy directives and guidelines.
It is not even clear exactly how much government spends on social assistance programs. In addition to the more than $50 million clearly earmarked by the Legislative Assembly for this purpose (this is not spare change), there are additional payments to nongovernmental organizations, sports and community groups. An array of other programs and expenditures are folded in under the purview of any number of departments, such as education or healthcare, or as individual line items.
It may well be that some (or many) are a wise investment of public resources, or that they could become so with greater focus and accountability. But simply throwing money at the community out of a vague desire to “help” does little to improve lives – it might even make them worse.
For example, well-intentioned support for single mothers may inadvertently offer a disincentive for young couples to marry and establish a stable two-parent household before bringing children into the world. Or this: never-ending cash support for people who are suited for employment most certainly encourages a lack of enterprise, responsibility and self-reliance.
We believe in the social safety net, but not one that is so poorly constructed and misapplied that it ensnares those it seeks to protect. In the United States, data suggest that social welfare dependence, if allowed to continue uninterrupted, often becomes generational, where no members of families, and their forebears, have ever worked. Dependence, in other words, has become a generational lifestyle.
To prevent such an outcome from ever taking root in Cayman, services must be targeted – designed to lift people out of poverty and dependency – and, most importantly, temporary.
Only those who cannot reasonably be expected to provide for themselves (for example due to age or disability) should qualify for long-term public assistance.
The goal should be that people thrive, not merely survive. Our emphasis must be to empower our people, first and foremost, through education and training that equips the next and all future generations to contribute and prosper in their own country.
Premier McLaughlin is not naive about the task ahead. As he said, “I am not going to be very popular over the next year or so.”
And yet, the opposite might be true.
If Premier McLaughlin stays the course and champions meaningful change, we believe the vast majority of his countrymen will support him. Certainly the Compass will.
More than that, if the premier is successful in his quest, he will be long remembered as the leader who righted the ship and helped give Caymanians the tools, and the spirit, to create for themselves independent, more fulfilling lives.