The Public Entities Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba in a joint letter that they send to State Secretary of Social Affairs and Labor Tamara van Ark on September 17, expressed support for the steps that the State Secretary is taking to eradicate poverty on the islands. However, more is needed.
The three islands are asking the ministries in The Hague to implement further extending structural improvement measures. Measures that will reduce the high cost of living and bring a better balance between people’s income and the cost of living. The high cost of connectivity between the islands, water, electricity, and telecommunications need to go down. The islands encourage the State Secretary to continue with the measures in her own domain and to inspire the other ministries to do the same. “Poverty is now clearly on the agenda. Now is the time to take further meaningful measures. Poverty alleviation is only possible with an integrated approach of all ministries.”
Close the gap
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (SZW) has already introduced structural measures to raise the income of certain groups in society: a higher legal minimum wage, higher social allowances and an increase of childcare benefits (‘kinderbijslag’). The Ministry of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations (BZK) is making investments in social housing and the reducing of rental costs through a rental subsidy which, once implemented, will help to reduce the cost of living.
“These are steps in the right direction to close the poverty gap. We have understood that more will follow in order for the amounts to be closer to the actual cost of living,” the Public Entities stated in the letter, which is a response to the recent progress report on establishing a benchmark for a social minimum in the Caribbean Netherlands.
The benchmarks in the progress report of the SZW Ministry deviate from the amounts mentioned the earlier Regioplan report because several costs like the cost of housing and childcare are calculated lower than the actual costs as mentioned in the Regioplan report.
The Public Entities called the decision to raise the minimum wages per January 1, 2020, a “positive step,” but at this moment this increase isn’t enough to cover the actual costs of living for this group of workers. The Regioplan report reflects the reality of the high cost of living very well, and everyone can agree that these costs should go down, stated the Public Entities. “The ambition of the Ministry of SZW to focus on a lower benchmark is positive, but there are too many uncertainties whether this will, in fact, be achieved if there is insufficient support from the other ministries. For now, the Public Entities will take the figures of the Regionplan as a guideline. A lot has to happen to get there. There are too many insecurities; will it really happen, when, how big and visible are the actual effects. It is quite a job to close the poverty gap by increasing income and reduce the costs.” The islands want the amounts adjusted to the cost of living on a regular basis, at least once per year.
The Public Entities find the monthly increase of the childcare allowance and the allowance for elderly people living on their own without additional income such as a pension positive. However, it is a given that the elderly people are having great difficulties to make ends meet. “We fear that many elderly persons will be excluded because of the limiting conditions such as a very low savings threshold. The allowance for single AOV recipients should match the actual expenditures of elderly persons.”
According to the Public Entities, better use should be made of existing instruments to assist persons living in poverty. There are different instruments at the Ministry of SZW and at the Public Entities that can provide assistance to persons living in poverty. “We think that a more effective use can be made of these instruments.”
The monthly increase by about US $20 of the childcare benefit is a positive step, but the islands hope that the ultimate perspective is that this amount will more reflect the actual costs of raising children. The islands hope that the pending increase in the allowance for persons who are unable to work will truly assist this group in covering their daily expenses.
High cost of living
The letter mentioned the meeting that the Public Entities had with State Secretaries Van Ark and Raymond Knops of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations on St. Eustatius on June 27 this year. During that meeting, the islands sought attention for three main issues: the need to eradicate poverty in a sustainable, structural manner; the needs of specific target groups such as the elderly and the working poor; the high cost of connectivity, water and electricity, and telecommunication bills. “Cost-covering and affordability are at odds in our small communities. These are topics that resort under other ministries. We ask that the ministries take concrete measures that will lead to a lower cost of living. The people on our islands frequently ask us about the high cost of living and we don’t have the tools to influence these high prices in the right direction.”
The Public Entities suggested to, in cooperation with the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate (EZK), come with concrete measures to stimulate the economy and to reduce the cost of doing business. Some of the suggestions include facilitating (new) entrepreneurs, reducing/eliminating the general import tax ABB on certain goods and services, fixing a basic facility such as the banking system, creating a customs union between islands and solving the connectivity issue.
Regarding connectivity between the islands, the letter stated: “The reliability and quality of the connections, the frequency and price of transport via air and water are important for our population, our economies and for the transport of entrepreneurs and other professionals. We propose to, aside from a bigger discussion about the public service obligation in aviation, start clear pilots in which the ministries and Public Entities work together.”
The islands consider the direction positive. At the same time, the Public Entities pointed out that there is “much work” for the various ministries to solve the poverty issue in a sustainable manner. “We, the islands will continue with what we can and have to do, by among other things, investing in good governance, further developing agriculture, price comparisons and work in the social domain. Things are happening. Now it comes down to all ministries implementing measures that result in closing the poverty gap. Eradication of poverty is only possible with a broad input and an integral approach of the ministries, the public entities, and others. You have our support in that process.”
State Secretary Van Ark arrives on Bonaire on Tuesday, October 1 for a four-day working visit. She visited St. Eustatius and Saba late June 2019.