I grew up in a largely poor village. I know the pangs of poverty, but above all I know the social stigma that accompanies poverty. I know what better-off people think about the capacity of poor people. I know how they laugh at the way poor people talk, walk, dress and eat. I know how some of them feel pity for the poor. I know how they see poor people as merely voters to be used to get them into power. I know how they believe that all you have to do is ring the bell of ethnic fear and poor people will fall in line. So, no matter how they wrap their opposition to cash-transfers in economic theory, at the core of it are conscious and unconscious class-prejudice. I can smell it from afar.
The contempt for poor people by even some “better-off poor people” is alive and well in Guyana. This aspect of class prejudice arises partly out of the limited opportunities for social mobility that have been made available to poor people—only a small fraction of us have made it out of that dread situation.
So, we have come to believe that our upward mobility resulted from some special individual talent on our part. We made it because we worked hard and those who remain at the social bottom are there because they didn’t work hard. In other words, we have come to believe that poor people are poor because they choose to be poor. So, if the government gives them money, they would squander it on foolishness—the poor have no sense of how to spend money properly.
Only the government and other social and political elites can spend money properly. So, let the government spend the money for them on education, roads, health care and other necessities. They, the poor, are children who cannot take care of themselves. If we give them the money, they will not work—they would throwback and wait for the cash-transfers. The fact that they are currently unemployed is because they choose to — work is available, but they don’t want to work. I know this is so because I asked this young man to come and clean my mess for a thousand dollars and he refused.
That is the nonsense that is implied by some of our elites and even some who are themselves poor. When people get drunk by their success, they forget that it was government policy that lifted them from the bottom and not a thousand dollars to clean somebody’s mess. They forget that those policies could only lift a few of us at any given time–only a few of us could make it to Bishops’ and Queen’s and UG. Only a few of us could get the scholarships to study abroad.
Imagine if Burnham had listened to those who had said don’t let poor people’s children into UG and Bishops’ and Queen’s because they would skip school and gamble. Where would many of us be today?
So, don’t matter how they dress it up, the stiff opposition to the WPA’s Cash-Transfer proposal is directly and indirectly grounded in social prejudice. The danger of this is that many of those who are poised to take power after the next election are steeped in this prejudice. In other words, they can turn their prejudice into policy or use it to oppose policy—they will have the power to do so. And they would be presiding over a lot of money.