EDITORIAL – A ‘needs assessment’ of our welfare services

“The reality, I believe, is most of our [social welfare] programs are failing, are not at all fit for purpose and are not addressing the issues that we face.”

– Premier Alden McLaughlin

The Cayman Islands are on a troubling economic and social path that if not corrected, will lead inexorably to a social welfare state. We are already far down that path, and there are few comforting signposts along the way.

Consider:

  • The government currently spends approximately $50 million per year on direct financial assistance to the needy, accounting for more than 8 percent of central government’s $600 million budget. The $50 million number is deceptive because it does not include a myriad of other programs and outlays, adding up to tens of millions of dollars of additional expenditures that masquerade as something other than “welfare.”
  • In only one decade, Cayman Islands government outlays for rental assistance quadrupled. Spending on food and clothing vouchers tripled. The cost of health insurance to seamen and veterans doubled.
  • Equally troubling, the Cayman Islands government, in addition to not knowing what it is actually spending on social assistance programs, also does not know why many of those checks and benefits are still being disbursed.

In a months-long assignment, senior journalist James Whittaker entered the quagmire of Cayman’s welfare apparatus, attempting to make some sense of its scope, its effectiveness and, importantly, its internal review and control mechanisms – in other words, the management checks and balances built into this metastasizing system. (See his articles, beginning on the front page of today’s Compass.)

What he discovered was almost universal dysfunction, a “make-it-up-as-you-go” patchwork of programs and payments.

For example, the government has spent millions of dollars annually on veterans’ benefits with little, if any, verification that the recipients ever donned military uniforms.

Similarly, once an individual or family is accepted into a “permanent program” of assistance, they are likely to receive checks and benefits – well, forever. The beleaguered staffers at the Needs Assessment Unit simply do not have the resources to follow up adequately on the massive number of people that have been approved for government grants.

At the least, simple humanity dictates that our country – indeed any country – provides for the least-able among us (the elderly, the infirm, the very young) and enables them to live lives of dignity that go beyond mere sustenance and survival. Cayman, to give ourselves some credit, is trying to do this.

What we cannot abide, however, is the misallocation of even one dollar due to poor management practices, lack of proper assessment and review procedures, or payments to the able-bodied among us who opt for a welfare check over a paycheck. What Cayman must guard against, at all costs, is a welfare lifestyle which becomes generational.

We are not so foolish as to think we are so wise that we can even begin to solve these intractable social issues in a 500-word editorial such as this. But, perhaps collectively, we as a people can come together to create a state that we all are proud to live in.

It certainly will not be a welfare state.

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