Middle class holding on ‘by the fingernails’, says Lane

The burden of economic hardship linked to the prolonged impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing hundreds of new households onto Government’s long list of families needing help with food, utility bills and other necessities.

Declaring that the country’s middle class is now “holding on by the fingernails”, Special Advisor to the Prime Minister on Poverty Alleviation, Corey Lane revealed that scores of traditionally ‘well-to-do’ families are finding themselves on the precipice.

In an interview with Barbados TODAY on Tuesday, Lane revealed that an additional 1,400 households have now been added to the 4,300 placed on the administration’s Adopt-A-Family programme last year.

A whopping 76 per cent of the impoverished households are headed by women and the City of Bridgetown has recorded the highest number of requests for help – both of which are consistent with past trends. But what is different this time around is the country’s historically-touted middle class.

“Oftentimes when we talk about the most vulnerable, we think of the core of traditional poverty, but what we have seen now, as they have described it, is that the middle-class is holding on by the fingernails,” Lane told Barbados TODAY.

He identified this middle-class group as unemployed persons who previously worked in the tourism sector that was crippled by the pandemic.

“A lot of them are unable to maintain the lifestyle they have set up for themselves. Many are unable to pay the mortgage and so on,” the Special Advisor added.

What is more frustrating is the fact that for many of these households, the idea of seeking welfare is a foreign concept and in some cases they are less likely to receive it when compared with the textbook poverty cases.

“They will explain to you ‘they have the electronic gate, they have the trowel plastic on the house, but the cupboards are empty and the creditors are calling to repossess the cars’. So they are now in a psychological conundrum in addition to the financial one,” Lane explained.

“We got approval recently from the Prime Minister’s Office to add 1400 eligible persons seeking assistance. The numbers are going up and as the debate rages about whether to shut down or not, these are all things that need to be considered and we are now putting mechanisms in place,” he added.

Over the course of the pandemic, Lane’s office has facilitated assistance to the tune of over $60 million including $15.3 million in cash grants that were offset with donations totalling $4.3 million from Barbadian companies based here and in the diaspora.

“When you look at the hampers, the food vouchers, the water tanks, the garden startup kits, the household cleaning kits and hygiene kits from the Barbados Red Cross, the Climate Fund, a number of supermarkets and so on, it is actually valued at about $60 million and just a quarter of that would have been from taxpayers’ money and that is pretty good,” said Lane.

“Going forward, I believe we will be spending another $15 million or so if the trend of COVID remains. So that is the overall cost, but there is a significant social cost if we don’t do this,” he warned.

The Special Advisor however admitted that numerous contingencies are also being explored in the event that the fallout from the pandemic does not subside. These include using the services of companies to provide hot meals as opposed to the types of food hampers and ‘care packages’ that were used last year, as his staff studies the experiences of other countries dealing with similar issues.

“My own research has shown that sometimes up to 30 per cent of those things go to waste even though someone may genuinely be in need and poor, because there are a lot of things that people don’t use now for health reasons,” Lane explained.

“Many of the canned goods carry a lot of sodium and a lot of preservatives and people would desperately eat things that they don’t usually use, putting themselves in harm’s way from a health perspective. So we are looking at sponsorship towards some vouchers to allow people to be able to eat and do so in a meaningful way,” he revealed.

Many of the requests this time around have evolved from persons wanting school supplies to assistance paying electricity bills, internet bills and purchasing books for students to assist with their online education.

According to Lane, the office responsible for poverty alleviation is no longer collecting data over the telephone, instead opting for online assessments to gather data from the over 18,000 clients severely affected by the pandemic.

Ultimately, Lane hopes the data collected could be used to inform a more comprehensive plan for the alleviation of poverty in Barbados.