As promised, Bermuda Real sat down with Shadow Minister of Community Affairs, Michael Weeks in follow up to the Budget brief by his parliamentary counterpart Minister Patricia Gordon-Pamplin on Financial Assistance.

You may recall his response to Government’s fiscal plan for the year ahead in the House of Assembly in February.

Speaking on the floor of House of the Lower House, Mr Weeks told MPs: “Community and culture is the ministry that binds our country together.

“If we really want to fix what is happening in our community we need to recognise the role that this ministry can play.”

Essentially, he described the Ministry of Community Affairs as the “glue and mortar that takes care of our community”. And in the two Bermuda’s he often refers to, he reflected on the lingering toll of unemployment in Bermuda.

In part two of a Bermuda Real report, Mr Weeks noted that unemployment also means NO health insurance for countless Bermudians.

“Budget cuts has also forced the Government clinic to cut their hours of operation,” said Mr Weeks.

“This surely has to affect single moms who are uninsured, or under-insured when trying to get health and/or dental treatment for their children.

“I was one of those who came up in the clinic system,” said Mr Weeks.

He noted that the STD Clinic has cut hours their hours of operation as well.

“Having worked at Focus and just through plain common sense, this suggests that a lot of homeless and drug addicted people will now have limited access to health care at the clinic.

“This is happening while money has been found and allocated by this government for the America’s Cup. It’s a major slap in the face to the challenges being faced by Mr and Mrs Bermuda!

“What happens to my people who are uninsured or under-insured? Surely the America’s Cup means little or nothing to them,” said Mr Weeks.

On April 8th Bermuda Real reported on the ‘Steady Flow Of Unemployed Bermudians Seeking Financial Assistance’, after the Minister’s Budget brief in February.

That story noted that despite claims that the recession is over, a steady flow of able-bodied applicants continue to seek financial assistance due to unemployment in Bermuda.

Ms Gordon-Pamplin told MPs that funding for financial assistance increased by more than $5 million in the 2016/17 Budget, to the tune of $54,561,000. That’s an 11 percent increase over the 2015/16 Budget.

“Although the higher overall number of clients are among seniors/pensioners (at 35 percent) and the disabled (at 32 percent); the higher number of applicants are able-bodied unemployed and earnings low persons,” said Ms Gordon-Pamplin.

She attributed the overall increase in the number of applicants processed “to the shrinking of personal financial resources in our current economic climate, inability to find employment, job losses and redundancies”.

“Due to the economic climate, the categories of able-bodied unemployed and earnings low persons have more than doubled over the last two to four years. This equates to a monthly payout of over $1,057,000 just for these two categories of clients,” she said.

The top four “high-ticket items for payout” listed:

1. Rental Accommodations
2. Rest and Nursing Home Fees
3. Insurance Premiums
4. Food

Responding to the Minister’s brief, Mr Weeks criticised several budget cuts. But the Minister countered: “The public purse was literally decimated by the previous PLP administration. You left the kitty empty,” said Ms Gordon-Pamplin.

Asked to respond, Mr Weeks submitted the following Opinion Column published nearly three years ago.

*Financial Assistance by Michael Weeks

True leadership must recognize the times, adjust to the times, and have a vision that is relevant to the realities of today, and not what was or what we might wish it to be. For many Bermudians this is a time of great fear and anguish as so many of us are unemployed, have seen our wages slashed, or been called upon to support family and friends who are also suffering under the weight of this recession.

Despite the new circumstances facing our people, there are those who continue to deride recipients of Financial Assistance and continue to act as though the majority are people attempting to scam the system as opposed to being in genuine need. Times change and so must we when it comes to how we approach Financial Assistance and how we perceive the people on it.

Financial Assistance Reform must begin with the understanding that many new recipients have, up until recently, have been tax paying, contributing members of our society. With surging unemployment, people who have paid diligently paid their taxes must not be treated like social outcasts, or be looked down upon. They have paid their way and we must support them in their time of need.

Further reform is required in terms of policies that hurt rather than elevate the conditions of people forced to turn to Financial Assistance. The PLP proposes:

1) A temporary change to the Financial Assistance policy to allow people who have lost their jobs to apply for assistance immediately and not have to wait three months, by which time their savings have dwindled and their personal debt is likely to have grown.

2). A temporary suspension of the policy that restricts individuals with over $5000 in assets from receiving aid. Many Bermudians are land rich, but cash poor and unable to support themselves. Furthermore, home ownership is a key component of ending multi-generational poverty. For that reason we propose a loosening of this policy to enable people to be supported, while retaining their property for future generations.

3) A reassessment of the verification process used to determine if recipients are seeking work. In light of the current job market, many recipients of Financial Assistance simply have run out of places to look for work. A new process, more reflective of this reality is needed.

4) Temporarily allowing Part-time employees who only earn under $20k annually (with children under 18-years of age) to apply for a food voucher or non-cash card to supplement their ability to purchase staple food/groceries for one year.

5) Temporarily allowing recipients on FA to keep their vehicles. Many employment or entrepreneurial opportunities today call for workers to have their own vehicles. The days when cars were a luxury item are a thing of the past as to many who are seeking work, it has become a necessity.

6) Substantial increases in the penalties for Financial Assistance fraud. With so many of our people in dire straits, those who would exploit the system and take from those in genuine need, must face the full weight of the law.

This reform reflects our times and addresses the needs of today’s unemployed in a real way. While we push for these proposals to become a reality, FA applicants should be reminded that there is an appeals process that allows anyone denied benefits to subsequently present their particular hardship circumstances to the Director of FA, and if still unsuccessful, a further appeal can be made to a 3-member Tribunal that has the power to ultimately approve an application.

We can pull through this recession, if we continue to support each other and work together to ensure that none of us are left behind.

By Ceola Wilson