ON August 31, Trinidad and Tobago will celebrate 50 years of independence.
It's a milestone achievement that is being commemorated with gala events and awards ceremonies, but there is a section of society who feels there is little to celebrate.
"What is there to celebrate, really?" asks Jay. "Higher crime, higher food prices?"
Jay (not his real name) is a convicted criminal who holds the view that poverty is the reason behind this country's burdening crime rate.
A 25-year-old father of two who has been in and out of prison over the past five years for stealing metal cables, Jay said he never envisioned living a life of crime but believes he had no choice.
"After my father left us, things was tight; we had no food, they cut the lights and I just wanted to help my mother, and these fellas I met said it was easy, and I would make more money than working in the supermarket packing boxes," he said.
Jay said for the two years he stole cables, he made more than $100,000, which he used to help pay bills, buy food and send his four younger siblings to school.
"It wasn't easy, you know. And I was always tired and jumpy since we had to leave home late in the night and spend the day peeling the wire to get the cooper that we use to sell to this businessman.
Then one night, we didn't have a watchman and we get catch; well, I get catch, the others manage to run away, and I spend seven months in jail; I was 20 years that time," he said.
Today, Jay is living in a small, one-room shack in a squatting community in Couva and does odd jobs to support his wife and two children. He is unable to find a job since he has a criminal record.
"I went to school, you know; I have my CXC (Caribbean Examinations Council), and I took a truck-driving course a few years ago, but I can't find a decent job. Is like they want people to rob and thief out here 'cause at this rate, that's all I have," he said.
Jay's story is not new.
It's been heard many times before, and according to Sheila Stuart, a social affairs officer at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean's (ECLAC) sub-regional office for the Caribbean in Port of Spain, it's typical of a reoccurring cycle of poverty.
Stuart says poverty can have a negative effect on people's quality of life, on the opportunities available to them, and on their ability to participate fully in society.
She added that it can be difficult to break out of the cycle of poverty "as poor children are more likely to become poor adults".
Stuart said she found that although there were people living in poverty, particularly people living in urban settings, their pride often prevented them from reaching out for social welfare or public assistance.
Asked why these people were most likely to turn to crime, Stuart said one of the reasons could be that they prefer to try and make ends meet on their own when compared to people living in a rural setting.
"Because people tend to come into an urban setting from different parts of the country, they may even be migrants from outside Trinidad and Tobago, they don't connect with the community, and if they are hungry and they are not going to get that bag of mangoes to satisfy their hunger (typical in a rural setting), they are going to steal because they need that food because they can't go into the supermarket and beg for food, and I think that's why crime tends to be concentrated in urban areas," she said.
According to the newly launched Trinidad and Tobago Human Development Atlas 2012, Trinidad and Tobago, in 2006, had an overall ranking of 0.020 on the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) ranking, which was resultant from 5.6 per cent of the population being poor, based on the dimensions of poverty considered, with an average intensity of poverty of 35.1 per cent of these poor people. The MPI measures deprivation in terms of health, education and standard of living.
Using a poverty line of $665 per individual per month, the 2005 Survey of Living Conditions conducted by the Ministry of Social Development (now the Ministry of the People and Social Development), with analysis of the findings conducted by KAIRI Consultants, the poverty level was 16.7 per cent while the 2011 Household Budget Survey from the Central Statistical Office (CSO) suggested a poverty level of 21.8 per cent.
Meanwhile, according to the 2008 Report on Crime Statistics (see table above) obtained from the Central Statistical Office, crime grew an average of 69 per cent over the last ten years.
Acknowledging the poverty and crime rates, and the disparity between them, Minister of the People and Social Development Dr Glenn Ramadharsingh has said the People's Partnership Government is working on streamlining the data available to them in order to make better decisions.
"I know that people think there is more poverty than what's being reported while there are others that say it's less. I can't comment more than to say we are working on it," he said.
Asked whether he thought poverty had a direct impact on crime, Ramadharsingh said he had not seen any data to support it locally but was fully aware of the crime situation and how people, especially young people, were affected by it.
"You see disengaged youths sometimes from dysfunctional families, and there is no sense of community (among them), there is only a sense of survival," he said in a recent interview.
"For most of these youths, they don't need to go into the mainstream of society, they don't need to sign up for things because they belong to a gang, and what the gang brings in and what the gang requires of them is what they fulfil," he said.
Stacy Ali is a developmental studies student who believes that communities plagued by violence and crime are generally poor neighbourhoods with low levels of social mobility. And like Jay, she believes people in these areas are more likely to get involved in crime.
"Although most (people) don't, it really depends on their situation and the degree of poverty they are experiencing," she said.
National Security Minister Jack Warner however disagrees when it comes to poverty affecting crime rates.
In a recent interview, he said: "One cannot deny that there is a relationship between poverty and criminal behaviour, but to ignore that such a relationship exists with the wealthy as well has to be erroneous. The reality is that both rich and poor commit crimes. Blue-collar crime is more prevalent among the poor while white-collar crime is more common among the rich.
"To state that poverty plays an influential part in criminal activity suggests that the poor are more predisposed to criminal behaviour, which the facts will not support and which proper statistics will reveal is not true," Warner added.
In agreement is United Nations Programme officer for Poverty and Social Policy Isele Robinson Cooper, who says poverty is a complex issue, and while one might speak of linkages between poverty and citizen security, that is different to causality.
To say that one causes the other is somewhat simplistic. In a society, the economic, social and political realities are intertwined when we look for the causes of a social phenomenon; it requires in-depth investigation.
"One of the problems with a poverty line figure is there are many ways of measuring poverty; you can reach a poverty line by measuring income, consumption and expenditure, which will give you a different result.
With the same information (survey), those three measurements can give you a different result. So the wider discussion therefore needs to be, as a nation, how are we going to measure poverty, and does that just mean a poverty line. My challenge and the challenge with a poverty line is: poverty can often also be transitional. Someone can be above the poverty line and then experience a chronic illness, for example, causing the family to fall below the poverty line...that family may later on transition out of poverty; it is not a fixed thing. People are moving all the time because you are dealing with people," she said.
She explained that the more sustainable way of looking at the complex issue of poverty was to look at the wider picture, in terms of human development. To think of the poverty line alone does not give one the entire story.
What is happening with people's ability to maximise their potential, their income levels, their access to good education and health, their ability to sustain a decent standard of living?
The conversation has to be larger/broader than the poverty line; poverty is one aspect of human development, another aspect of which is inequality, she said.
The UNDP highlighted the Human Development Atlas, in particular, the fact that the data is presented in a user-friendly way by municipal region. In that regard, it can be an effective tool for community-based organisations and individuals in communities to get involved in solving particular problems/challenges at the regional level.
As such, United Nations co-ordination analyst Nana Oye Hesse-Bayne has said it is incumbent on the community to get involved and help eradicate poverty on a micro level.
"Nation-building is not only done by government alone—as a nation, everyone should take the onus on themselves that they have a part to play," she said.
CSO 2008 Report on
Crime Stats 1998 2008
Murder 97 547
Manslaughter 4 6
Burglary 6,112 4,855
Wounding 319 771
Larceny 2,686 6,157
Robbery 2,780 5,043