December 05, 2004
By Raffique Shah
A SOCIETY that does not take care of its elderly is a society that has reverted to the laws of the jungle. In the animal kingdom, when beasts, even those that worked hard or were feared when they were full of life, grow old and become incapacitated, they are left to fend for themselves, to die, sometimes painfully. As human beings, we are supposed to be more intelligent and caring than animals. In most cases, our elderly have contributed to building the nation, whether they were sugar or oil workers, artisans or public servants. Yet, when they grow old, when they become infirm and need help to see them through their winter years, they find themselves deserted by family members and all but abandoned by government and its agencies.
I chose to focus on this aspect of Vision 2020, on what the Prime Minister's "wise men" may have recommended for our retirees, pensioners, and the aged in general, because of the rapid decline in standards of living of these people. I have also been monitoring the crises in social security and retirement benefits in two of the most developed countries in the world, the UK and the USA. Since we have chosen to follow the lead of these countries in structuring our economies and shaping our social security programmes, there are lessons for us in the seemingly insurmountable problems they have encountered in the areas of pensions, other social benefits, and retirement age.
Before I outline what I see as the moral decay that has set in societies that promised milk and honey to their citizens, let us examine what our retirees and pensioners, currently enjoy... or are forced to endure. Most Caroni Ltd pensioners, for example, receive between $650 and $1,000 a month, the latter being of more recent vintage and those who made contributions to their terminal benefits. Bear in mind these retirees are among the "elite" in the agricultural sector, so one can only imagine what others survive on. One may add to this the State pension of $1,000 a month (provided the retiree is not barred from it by virtue of having some small income), and NIB benefits of a similar sum, having contributed to national insurance for most of their working lives.
In the case of oil workers who currently earn an average of $7,000 a month, their pensions after 33 years' service is two-thirds their final wages/salaries. The OWTU fought valiantly to achieve this, which means they, along with T&TEC workers, will receive what could be termed reasonable retirement benefits, possibly averaging $5,000 monthly. Because public servants and teachers' salaries are less, their terminal benefits will also be less. And daily-paid Government or regional corporations' employees have little or nothing to look forward to except public pension and NIS benefits. My understanding is the Vision 2020 committee that looked at pensions recommended to Government, a minimal old-age pension that will not be below the poverty line, that NIS benefits be taken into consideration when determining the sum the pensioner receives, and that pensioners receive subsidised water and public transport benefits.
Outside of these hundreds of thousands who actually held jobs for almost half their life-spans, and who happened to have trade unions fight for their retirement benefits, there are many more old people who were left to suffer. These are persons who never held regular, long-term jobs, and more so widows who have lost the little benefits their late husbands will have got. Then there are the infirm who, for all that NDAP promises by way of low-priced medications, have to meet bills they cannot afford. Many in this category choose death over suffering in hospitals or at home in an undignified manner.
We need to focus on these people for many reasons, not the least of which is that one day we shall be among their ranks... except if we die early. Time was when their children or grandchildren, for those who had, took care of them. In this modern, fast-paced world in which several members of families have to work in order to earn survivable incomes, there is no one to take care of "granny" or "gramps". These poor people often have to fend for themselves, live tough, lonely lives. Financially, they struggle to stay alive, to pay for electricity and water and medication.
The least we can do, as a caring people (and we are, compared with other "savages" elsewhere), is to put things in place to ensure that the aged and the children are taken care of. I trust that Government will use the current oil windfall and our general wealth to do that. If they leave important future obligations like that to the central Government funds, or worse, recurrent expenditure, the well will run dry some day. Then there will be nothing with which to take care of our aged. This is what's happening in the USA and in much of Europe, where generous promises cannot be fulfilled because the funds are running low.
Earlier this week, Gregory Mankiw, chairman of George Bush's Council of Economic Advisors, told a tax policy forum: "Let me state clearly, there are no free lunches here. The benefits scheduled for future generations under current law are not sustainable, given the projected path of payroll tax revenue." Two comments on that. Firstly, "free lunch" for people who have given their all to build a country? And secondly, why the payroll tax revenue? What of corporation taxes and other wasted money, like billions to destroy Iraq? He does have a point when he says that each generation of retirees has received higher benefits than the one before it. But has he factored in inflation? Or has he accepted that these are human beings?
There are similar fears in the UK where they are seeking to push back the retirement age, initially to 70, but have settled for the time on 65. Alan Johnson, Work and Pensions Secretary to Tony Blair, said: "Britons are not saving enough for a comfortable old age." How can you save when the cost of living has gone through the roof? People, including the middle classes, are "ketchin nenen" in the UK. Rents and house prices are astronomical (little different to here), and utility bills are crazy. So while many now retire at between 55 and 60, soon they will have to work until they are 70.
Is this what we want for our aged? I should think not. I trust the conscience of this society, the churches, the NGOs, the trade unions, business organisations, will join in insisting that government make proper provisions to care for our aged citizens.