The Pandemic Poverty Puzzle: Economist says poverty levels beyond projections

Heavily pregnant with her seventh child, Beatrice Paul (not her real name) faces unimaginable trials.

Her story is one among many that have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic and as Finance Minister Colm Imbert presents the Budget for the next fiscal year today, the answers lie in how he intends to put the pieces of the puzzle together to relieve the sufferings of tens of thousands.

At the age of 31, she has already been through homelessness, sexual abuse, physical battering and rejection from three different men who fathered her children.

Despite being educated and a former student of a prestigious high school, Paul is in a fourth relationship.

But why did Paul find herself in this situation?

In an interview with Guardian Media, Paul said she was sexually molested as a child and knew what it felt to feel inferior, unworthy and unloved.

Her biological mother abandoned her. Paul’s adopted mother died after she got pregnant for her high school sweetheart but that dreamy-eyed relationship did work out as she was abused emotionally and verbally.

“I never grew up with my mother. I had nobody to guide me in my decisions, like how I am doing with my children now,” Paul said.

After her adopted mother died, Paul said she became vulnerable and made a mistake that led to a second pregnancy with another man.

He walked away saying he was not ready to become a father. She was then kicked out of her adopted home.

“Back then I was ready to give up on men. I told myself I will mind my children. I did not want to have anybody else,” she said.

But a relative pressured her into marrying a man to give “security” to her children. That third relationship led to sexual violence and physical abuse.

Just before the pandemic hit, she became pregnant again for someone else.

“You think I wanted to be pregnant. Do you think I wanted to push out a baby every other year? I went to Family Planning but I was allergic to the pill. I started to bleed. I started to get infections from the latex in the condom. My husband told me to end the pregnancy but I am against abortion. I had my baby because I was raised properly and I know that abortion is wrong,” Paul said.

While people reading this may judge her, Paul said in her heart she tries to be a good mother.

“I did not have the guidance. I did not get the help I need to cope with my childhood trauma of being abused. Here I am now, pregnant for the seventh time. I wish the government could put programmes in place for us where the social worker can come to us and help us with options,” she added.

Paul’s story is not uncommon

Paul’s feelings of hopelessness were shared by Karla, a mother of six who told us her husband impregnated her often to keep control of her.

He refused to give her money to travel to the Wednesday afternoon Family Planning meetings at the Debe Health Centre.

“My husband does not want me to go anywhere because he would beat me if another man so much as watches me,” Karla said. She begged the doctors at the San Fernando General Hospital to tie her tubes but they denied her request saying she was too young for this procedure.

Savitri who admitted to being depressed said she has not been able to access any of the assistance grants that were available by the government.

“I have five children, three different fathers. The oldest one, her father gives a little money to mind her but he wouldn’t help with the others. We don’t have internet so I cannot upload any form online. I never pay NIS so I cannot get references. All I can do is go out the road and beg to see if I can get something to feed my children,” Savitri explained.

Poverty is extreme says UWI economist

Prominent economist and researcher on employment and poverty, Dr Ralph Henry agrees that since the pandemic started, poverty has become extreme in T&T.

Dr Henry who is Head of the Department of Economics at the University of the West Indies said poverty levels are now way beyond what was ever projected.

Asked whether a poverty grid could have been developed in every community to have specific data to assist vulnerable people, Dr Henry said the government has made an effort to assist the people affected by the pandemic.

“There is no way the government on its own with the limited resources can alleviate poverty,” he said.

“It is a major challenge because there is a lot of corruption and people allegedly in the Ministry have taken the money and presumably given it out to people who are not deserving. There are community leaders who put themselves forward as heads of community groups, among other problems,” he said.

Dr Henry said to avoid wastage of resources, poverty data must be verified and shared with other agencies across the board so there is no duplication of the resources.

“Surveys are expensive but you have to find some mechanism that is efficient and effective in reaching most people. Large numbers fall below the poverty line. You have information that you can draw from, for example, households with children, who are registered in a school. There must be a record from inoculation. There is some record that we can draw from that allows us to start documenting people,” he said.

He noted that long ago, there were social workers in communities doing poverty means tests, the data of which was utilized by government agencies.

Some recommendations to alleviate poverty

1- Hire more social workers to go into communities to do a means test on families.

2- Develop a poverty grid, documenting poor families utilising existing data from schools, health centres and government agencies.

3- Allocate resources based on the means test. Put systems in place to ensure the resources reach the right people.

Family planning breakdowns

But the secretary of the Association of Psychiatrists of T&T (APTT) Dr Varma Deyalsingh said education can reduce poverty levels. He said while family planning outreach programmes have been successful, there are some setbacks.

“There are reasons for a lack of contraceptive use. Due to some breakdowns in public health education, we still don’t reach some to teach family planning.

“There are also cultural and religious biases, health concerns and even scepticism about the motives of the government in controlling family size,” Deyalsingh said.

He added, “Some may have health clinics located far from their homes and may not have means to travel to clinics. Then patriarchal control exists where men make the decisions for their wives whether or not to use contraception.”

He noted that a girl who starts her childbearing years earlier is likely to have more kids and less likely to finish school.

“Thankfully government outlawed child marriages and we now are duty-bound to report sexual activity in those under 18 years. We were beginning to see fewer pregnancies, fertility rates were also decreasing.

However, the poorer persons are likely to have larger families which further stretches their finances as well as be less educated which compounds the issue,” he said.

Deyalsingh said under the School Feeding Programme, poor children got accustomed to getting meals but COVID -19 compromised this.

He says dead-beat fathers must be made to pay child support.

“High school boys should be coached in gender equality and sharing childcare responsibilities later on. Family planning should be a priority in the HLFE courses. We must coach teens to understand their rights, delaying sex, the legal age of consent and the importance of education because increasing a girls education decreases fertility rates,” he said.