Bearing the burden

It is often said that when the United States sneezes Barbados catches a cold.

In recent times that statement has been often used within the context of economic matters, although there are some who would suggest the impact of American culture over recent decades has been more pervasive.

On this occasion we speak of it in relation to the current US presidential election campaign, and specifically comments recently attributed to Republican candidate Mitt Romney, and for which he has been receiving some flak.

A “secretly” recorded video of the politician speaking at a private fund raiser event in May this year and made public this week has him in proverbial hot water.

The portion of his statement to the small group of financial donors that has generated the most debate and controversy relates to his description of almost half of the American population, who he considered President Barack

Obama’s strongest supporters. “There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 per cent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it,” Romney is heard saying in the video recording.

“That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what …These are people who pay no income tax.”

That a cross section of the US public, political pundits included, has responded negatively to this pronouncement is no surprise, and we are not for a minute suggesting that any Barbadian politician would dare make such an inflammatory statement about any of people he or she is seeking to represent.

The negativity notwithstanding, there is an aspect of the Romney statement we think is worthy of discussion in the Barbados context.

This has to do with the extent to which the state can continue to hold and expand the so called “social safety net” at a time when financial resources are pretty much non existent.

Barbados is, and should be, proud of the “free” education and health care that has made this small island the envy of others with larger populations and deeper pockets.

But whether it be concerns about government debt owed to the University of the West Indies, or some Bajans waiting for government to repair their homes damaged almost two years ago by Tropical Storm Tomas, now is as good a time as any for discussion on the extent to which social entitlements can continue.

A case in point is the controversial decision by the current administration to introduce a dispensing fee for medication sourced from the private sector.

This was part of the government’s stated plan to halt burdensome Barbados Drug Service expenditure.

One of the important questions the politicians seeking to govern Barbados will have to answer when the next general election is held between now and April is the level at which certain social programmes will be economically sustainable amid constant and growing demands for such services but less money to pay for them.

It would be a surprise, and indeed a disappointment, if any political administration now or in the future suddenly decided they could no longer bear the cost of meeting the social needs of Barbadians, many of whom cannot afford a pill much less surgery.

What they need to do, however, is find a way of doing it that eases the burden on the public purse, while not causing unnecessary public suffering.

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