The Cayman Islands economy is a rising tide. However, there is a small but significant, and apparently growing, segment of the population that is not equipped or positioned to benefit equally from our country’s general prosperity.
Consider the following: In 2017, Cayman’s estimated Gross Domestic Product (a standard method for assessing the size of a country’s economy) increased by 2.9 percent from the previous year, according to data from the Economics and Statistics Office.
But during the same period, requests for assistance from the government’s Needs Assessment Unit increased by more than 13 percent.
The requests were for all types of assistance, ranging from rent to utility bills, to school uniforms and medical care.
In total, families accessed social services assistance 2,049 times last year, up from 1,805 instances the previous year.
To an extent, in a capitalistic system the existence of some economic inequality is inevitable, and, as long as the vast majority of society has satisfactory or greater living standards, is not inherently problematic.
Although it may be somewhat counterintuitive, it is not surprising that more and more of the lowest-income earners find themselves unable to keep up with the rising costs of living (particularly housing prices) that accompany developmental growth and uplift in demand from the upper end of the economic scale.
(Look at prosperous places such as San Francisco and New York City to see where entire communities have been “priced out” of their own neighborhoods by the multiplication of those with means.)
Just because the phenomenon can to a degree be anticipated does not mean it is not cause for concern. In the context of Cayman’s continuing economic boom, the magnitude (large) and trend (increasing) of our country’s welfare-seeking population is troubling for an island of our limited size and resources.
The statistics underscore the well-established problem – the disconnect between the needs of employers, and the skills, aptitudes and attitudes of a certain portion of Cayman’s workforce.
In an atmosphere of strong demand for services, too many Caymanian adults are unable or unwilling to hold down steady jobs that would allow them to provide for their families.
Short-term work programs, such as this summer’s NiCE cleanup project, will beautify our country while filling workers’ pockets with much-appreciated cash, but those programs do not constitute a long-term strategy. There is little similarity between performing a job for two weeks and maintaining a fulfilling career.
There is no single or simple solution to the persistent problem of unemployment. Nevertheless, few would disagree that in order to inoculate future generations against poverty, a society must provide access to excellent market-sensitive education. Every young Caymanian must be prepared to compete in the local and global economy, which is increasingly one and the same.
Additionally and importantly, for individuals who are able to work, social services should be structured to provide temporary “lifeline” assistance, not access to a lifetime of welfare dependency, which too commonly evolves into an multigenerational cycle.
With few exceptions (such as the elderly or disabled), the goal of social services should be to find the shortest path to gainful employment and self-sufficiency.