By Devon Dick
RECENTLY, SOME Parish Councils announced new measures and fees which could affect food prices. For example, the St Thomas Parish Council announced some massive percentage increases, including a 350 per cent increase on butcher fees. The usual argument for these increases is that they have not been increased in a long time and the amount is not significant in terms of dollars and cents. However, these increases can have a pass- through effect on customers who are poor. It could lead to an increase in meat prices. This would hinder the most vulnerable maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet.
The Kingston and St Andrew Corporation intends to regularise handcart operators. Part of it is licensing them and charging each operator $500 or $1,000. This might not be a large amount of money but there can be a pass-through effect larger than the actual fees. This transportation cost increase could have a psychological effect and persons using the service will begin to increase cost of food items so transported. Perhaps a better strategy would be to regularise the handcart and absorb the administrative cost and wait until next year to start charging. Let handcarts see the benefits of this new initiative before a charge is imposed.
Before increasing fees, the local government authority should conduct a study on the impact this will have and let the citizens know the result of the research. Food price increases should be a serious matter and should be the result of intellectual rigour and careful analysis.
Since approximately 20 per cent of the population is below the poverty line and not all who are under the poverty line are getting benefits from the Programme for Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH), any increase in food prices can be destabilising. Furthermore, our macro-economics scenario coupled with significant devaluation of the Jamaica dollar means that cost of living will rise and basic food prices will take some hit. And the amount of money given to PATH beneficiaries is inadequate.
Bus and taxi fares are projected to be increased by the Jamaica Urban Transit Company and the rural transportation system will follow. To add increases on food prices will have a significant impact on persons who are poor, and heightened hardships can follow.
Basic foods which are critical, essential, fundamental and indispensable for human existence should be protected from increases that are not necessary. Government should focus on the majority of companies that are not paying taxes and those self-employed professionals who are not paying their fair share. The Government should have as a philosophy to widen the tax net, allowing those who can afford it to bear more of the burden.
Recently, a single mother asked me what was the procedure to get PATH benefit. She is a professional and I, therefore, told her it was not for her and her child. She was very sad because she needs help. More and more persons after visiting the shop or supermarket realise that the cost of food has increased significantly. Persons are finding it difficult to get the staff of life. And we know that a hungry man is an angry man. In 2010, PATH spent $2.9b and gave 120,000 persons cash transfers as of December 2011. PATH needs an injection of $2b for the safety net, to improve the benefits and also to widen the safety net.
Food price increases would also have a negative impact on indigent homes, nursing homes, and institutions that cater to the needy, not to mention the 1,000 homeless persons in Kingston and hundreds in other parts of Jamaica.
The local government authorities need to rethink the policy of increasing fees on persons which could affect food prices.
Rev Devon Dick, PhD, is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church in St Andrew. Send comments to email@example.com