DIANE PHILLIPS: Creative solutions needed to address society’s inequities


Diane Phillips

A MAN sleeps in his car, hoping it will not rain tonight so he can keep the windows open. Not far away, a few miles along the coast, another man writes a cheque for $3.2m for a beachfront condo he will use six weeks of the year.

Both men work, one has a job, the other a life.

Both are intelligent, engaging conversationalists. One fell on hard times despite being a hard worker. The other fell on a gold mine with a fortunate investment.

Inequities are not always explicable. They just happen – like being born with green eyes when they could have so easily been blue. But are there lessons we can learn, ways we can change what appears to be inevitable and predictable -- that the man in the car will have a night with rain sometime soon and the millionaire will keep on living his best life?

Never will we be able to erase the difference between the no-residence to call home and the second homeowner in the luxury high-rise, but we can chip away in a significant way to ease the burden of the former by asking a little more of the latter.

The dangers of not doing so are what we saw played out in Philadelphia this week where anger exploded in the looting of stores, where those living in poverty or struggling emotionally found courage in gangs and took over the streets. Shocking and not shocking all at the same time, it was hard to watch, but not to understand. It was a play-by-play horror show of hundreds smashing windows, grabbing everything behind the broken glass before destroying the shelves themselves, though there was not a thing left worth taking.

It was a daring display that reminded us of the risks of a culture of perceived injustice.

We saw it this week, too, in a calmer setting when more than 18,000 UAW workers walked off the job, putting the brakes on the auto industry, demanding a 40 percent increase in pay across the board, earning the endorsement of American President Joe Biden who marched with the picketers. We saw it with other labour matters, including the nearly five-month long writers’ strike in California that was finally resolved in their favour. People who hurt are people who are angry and anger is a mighty dangerous weapon.

It is one thing to bring down an industry that can eventually pull itself back up, bruised and battered, but functioning. It is another for a people to be destroyed by inequity. We only have to look to Haiti to see what can happen when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

When inequities flourish, nations perish. We in The Bahamas are far from perishing, but our inequalities are so evident – the great divide between the haves and the have-nots, the gorgeous schools with rolling green lawns and enviable sports facilities and a government school where it is all they can do to keep the bathroom working.

But The Bahamas is small and stable and democratically governed and that we have what it takes to make a difference is a beautiful thing.

How do we better balance, even a little, and take care of more needs? The most obvious is to tax the rich, a modern Robin Hood-like scenario that can be ideal in intention and risky in execution. Too high a tax and the wealthy go elsewhere where taxes are lower and the living is still enviable. It’s a competitive world out there in any effort to attract the high net worth individual whose contributions to community can be significant economically, socially and culturally.

There are other methods, using national funds from general taxes and fees to boost the economically challenged.

But the most intriguing way is one that is a take-off on something that businessman Mario Carey suggested a while back and having spoken with him recently, I know he wants to revisit the concept. His plan is not too different from the new one percent tourism tax in which the funds collected go into an account created to improve the tourism product. The funds do not go into the Treasury or the Consolidated Fund. Like the Bahamas National Trust with accounts to maintain a certain national park, or Lyford Cay Foundation with funds separated for scholarship or community support, contributions go to dedicated categories earmarked for specific categories of causes.

In the same way, Carey, who knows the high-end market well, believes there is room to institute a small tax on the purchase of every residential property over a specified amount with the funds collected earmarked for social services. With a growing homeless population, a waiting list for beds at Sandilands Geriatric Hospital and one doctor’s estimate that there are ten times as many Dementia patients as facilities available for them in The Bahamas, and an ongoing need to feed the hungry, not to mention the numerous ongoing demands for social services that cannot be fulfilled with current budgeting, a small fee set aside to help ease the burden makes a lot of sense. How it is collected and managed is the critical issue. If we are to collect a one-time small purchase fee from the wealthy or from second homeowners to support social services, a non-government, private foundation must be created as a 501C3 with tax benefits in their home country for those who donate. Additional donations may be made annually for continued tax benefit but it kicks off with that one percent or one-half percent added to the purchase price for the social services foundation that operates with annual reports, audited accounts and full transparency.

There are serious choices – we can do what the City of West Palm Beach is doing lately, arresting those who feed the homeless or we can bridge an inch of the gap between the man who wrote the cheque for $3.2m and the one who hopes the rain will stay away so he can sleep with his car windows open tonight. From those who have much, much is expected and a foundation managed by a non-government entity with government oversight collecting a few dollars from every high-end residential purchase is not such a terrible idea. We could even name it after the late Minister and call it the Obie Wilchcombe Foundation for Social Services.