Dignity is a measure of our inherent value and worth as individuals. Having the ability to retain one’s dignity may be the cornerstone of civil society. It is commonly understood as a sense of self-respect and pride in oneself, but it is more than a measure of emotional comfort. It is manifested when one does or does not have the ability to take care of one’s self and one’s family.

In the field of social services, we identify clients for being at-risk if they are lacking one of these essential elements:

1. Financial independence—the ability to care for oneself and/or one’s family independently

2. A nurturing family structure, and nurturing relationships

3. Supportive social systems surrounding the family/individual —social services/quality education/access to quality healthcare, etc.

If any one of these elements is missing, the family and individuals are placed at-risk. If any two elements are missing, the family is considered to be at high-risk for loss of wellbeing and perhaps, dignity.

Dignity is spoken of as a measure of self worth – often derived from the degree of empowerment and independence that we enjoy. But another formal definition of dignity is “being worthy of honour or respect.” This is troubling to me because of the manner by which financial independence, family support and access to resources and services is determined by factors that are out of our control.

Many are born into or thrust into a lack of stability by forces that could impact any of us. At Family Centre, we have a clear agenda and that is; “Dignity for All”. We view dignity as the soil in which we plant a good life. It is not the fruit borne from a life well lived or the reward of good character.

In Bermuda we are challenged to offer dignity as an attainable foundation for life.

  • According to Bermuda’s 2013 Household Expenditure Survey, the average annual household expenditure increased by 18% from 2004 to 2013, including utilities costs, health care, and housing.
  • In 2013, the average family spent $10,300 on health care. Health insurance accounted for $7,644, or 74% of this expenditure. Notwithstanding government insurance premiums, which do not always provide adequate upfront coverage, the average single parent will pay private insurers up to $1,800 per month for health insurance.
  • Second only to housing, health care costs continued to be the second highest increased cost for families in household expenditure. These increases will ultimately result in unfairly asking families to choose between putting food on the table and taking care of the health of their children.
  • Food costs are so high and electricity costs have increased to such an extent that Family Centre routinely sees families also forced to choose between electricity and food.

Systems inherit dysfunction, blind spots and disadvantages just like people and families. This is a call to “Dignity for All” and that requires a collective will to drive our social policies in a dignified manner that lifts everyone up. There is a price to pay when societies prioritize equality and opportunity for all over short-term gains for some. We may all feel the pinch that comes with change but there is a bigger price to be paid when people learn to live without dignity.

Standard living wage

Family Centre supports the establishment of a standard living wage. Businesses and organizations may challenge this, however, we see it as a demonstration of the level to which a community cares about its people and their ability to reasonably access a living wage.

Health insurance

Family Centre supports an affordable and accessible health care system for all and the protection of Bermuda’s most vulnerable in terms of their health and wellbeing.

We fully support the 14 goals of the Government’s Health Action Plan, which calls for: Access to basic coverage, affordable contributions, appropriate overseas care, paying for quality, electronic health records, addressing long-term care, standards of care, financing efficiency, regulating health technology, providing more health promotion, coordinating healthcare delivery, tackling chronic non-communicable disease, and subsidising the vulnerable.

Analysts, reporters and big thinkers love to talk about Gross Domestic Product. Put simply, GDP, which tallies the value of all the goods and services produced by a country each year, has become the yardstick by which we measure a country’s success. But there’s a big, elephant-like problem with that: GDP only accounts for a country’s economic performance, not the happiness, wellbeing or potential of its citizens.

With GDP, if your richest 100 people get richer, your GDP rises, but most of your citizens are just as badly off as they were before. If you scan the Bermuda landscape, there is clear evidence that the divide between the ‘have’ and ‘have-nots’ is growing, and within the ‘have-nots’ environment, the loss of dignity is causing a dangerous percolation. A precarious storm has begun to brew.

Our greatest chance for success, as a society, is to be people who care and show compassion for those who have fallen into untoward circumstances. Providing families with a “hand-up”, and not a “handout”, places families on a platform where they will have the same opportunities as others to advance beyond their difficult circumstances. Without this commitment, we tread in very dangerous waters. Individuals will find ways to ensure that their dignity and self-respect are preserved, and unfortunately, without a concern for how it affects the rest of society.

In the words of Frederick Douglas, “It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.” Family Centre estimates there are currently at least 1,500 families in Bermuda struggling to cover their basic necessities, and are at risk of losing access to dignity every day. We must prevent the loss of dignity in childhood and work collectively to restore dignity where it has been lost. This is more than a charitable act. It is an act of urgent self-preservation for us all. It can begin with the most practical concerns of affordability of essential services and resources.

Committing to a standard wage, working to identify the elements that increase our cost of living and prioritizing efforts to address those elements, ensuring that our most vulnerable have access to affordable healthcare and that our youth have sufficient supports to grow up as contributing adults in this society, will go a long way to heal our wounds and to avert the very certain storm of societal discontent that comes with the loss of dignity.

By Martha Dismont

Martha Dismont is the Executive Director of Family Centre; which she founded in 1990. Originally from New York, Mrs Dismont worked as a Social Worker for the State of New York. She was widowed shortly after moving to the island and has a 27-year-old Bermudian daughter.

She has spent most of her time in Bermuda developing Family Centre, and serving on various community boards, including Bermuda National Standards Committee, the Board of Education and the Sustainable Development Roundtable.

She is founder and currently Chairperson of the Inter Agency Committee for Children and Families, which includes an initiative to establish an island-wide continuum of care for youth and families, and a National Children’s Agenda of Priorities. She is Co-Chair of the Inter Agency Gang Task Force Community Response Team.