Tribune Business Reporter


The Bahamas' social security system has been subjected to "a lot of abuse", the minister responsible has admitted, acknowledging that welfare assistance was not always being given to those who needed it most.


Loretta Butler-Turner

To the Bahamian welfare system are aimed at curbing the widespread abuse according to Loretta Butler-Turner, minister of state for social services, told Tribune Business that reforms set to be implemented in conjunction with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) were aimed at curbing abuses such as fraud and trading of food stamps as a commodity, with money changing hands.

Among the proposed reforms to the welfare system, she said, was a more precise means of identifying persons who truly need welfare assistance or "means testing".

An Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) report which is part of the initiative to Strengthen Social Protection Programs, noted that just 16.7 per cent of poor Bahamian households were receiving social security benefits. And just 45 per cent of the Food Stamps issued by the Department of Social Services go to the poorest 20 per cent of Bahamian households.

"A lot of what we experienced during the economic recession exacerbated many of the shortfalls of the existing system that we see, and in that regard the Government felt we needed to have a more precise mechanism to ensure that those person's who truly need assistance are getting it," Mrs Butler-Turner said.

"Even though we increased the social assistance in excess of $7 million, many times we saw that that assistance was not getting to those individuals who needed it. It almost appeared that rather than being a subjective assessment, many times we were having discretionary assessments done. The people who we truly needed to get assistance to were not always receiving it."

She added: "The approach we are looking at with the IDB, is that the Government is in talks to have them sponsor this program to ensure we do meet the most vulnerable individuals. We will not only be looking at giving them funding but, in order to break the cycle of poverty, that conditionalities will be placed on those persons, especially those persons with children.

"Outside of that we will have the elderly who will probably not have the conditionalities placed on them because they probably do not have another generation coming up."

Mrs Butler-Turner said there has been widespread abuses in the welfare system. She added: "I think there has been a lot of abuse. In the system we have used in the past, individuals would come into our centres, state their case and, in many instances, because of the large numbers, while you have not been able to get social workers out in a timely fashion to truly do an assessment, they have in fact started receiving benefits which maybe they would not have been entitled to under this new system we are looking at.

"There were one or two instances, in particular, as it related to rent assistance where we found individuals had intentionally defrauded the Government. By and large, what we found with the food stamps were people were actually selling them.

"You have people who are working and are making good salaries that have problems with proper budgeting. They have come and presented themselves, and used this as a mechanism for their planning. Those sort of things we much look at as well."

Mrs Butler-Turner said: "Unfortunately, many people think the Government has a bottomless pit of money, not realising first of all that this is a non-contributory thing.

"This is not an entitlement that one would get from National Insurance, and they do not realise that the funds the Government puts into social services is something we garner from our taxes. So basically we are taking from ourselves when we do this. I think Bahamans need to fully understand where money comes from for these particular projects."

Melanie Griffin, former minister of social and community development under the Christie-led PLP administration, told Tribune Business that the former government was well aware of the issues plaguing the welfare system, and was in the process of implementing programmes to address those weaknesses prior to leaving office.

She added that the Christie administration had initiated the IDB report. "We got the results of the report, which identified weaknesses in the system and were putting programmes in place to address those weaknesses," Mrs Griffin said.

"We were very much aware of the weakness in the system, and it had been recommended that we move toward a conditional cash transfer system. We were very advanced in addressing the weakness in the system, but the Government, when they came, in abandoned the program." Mrs Griffin said.

"There needed to be institutional strengthening in order for Social Services to build their capacity in order to deal with the social safety net.

Mrs Griffin questioned the Government's timing in moving toward implementing the reforms with elections looming. "You don't want to put in place something that is rushed. I don't see how it could be done at this time successfully. It could be just a political ploy, and we really don't need games to be played at this time. If it is to be done it is to be done properly," Mrs Griffin said.


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