The government recently announced new rates for passport and passport services which will take effect on May 26, 2015. The cost of applying for or renewing an adult passport will jump from $4,500 to $6,500. That is almost a fifty per cent increase and will become another burden for the average Jamaican. In case we have forgotten, the minimum wage is still $5,600 per week and upwards of a million Jamaicans live below the poverty line.
I initially planned to do a breakdown of that $5,600 to show how hard it must be to live on, but I don’t know where to start – food, bills, healthcare, education – and it is stressing me the hell out.
On seeing that there will be an increase, people anxiously ran (probably literally) to the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency (PICA) offices to apply before the prices go up, causing overcrowding and the need for crowd control by the security forces to maintain order. That is an expected and reasonable reaction from where I sit.
Middle class contempt for poor people
Of course, middle class Jamaicans came raging in, on their usual high horses, turning up their noses at those barbaric Neanderthals who are always just searching for an opportunity to behave like savages. “They have money to spend on expensive hairstyles and to go dance”, they said. “It is not that expensive when compared to other places”, they said. “If they can’t afford it so be it, they can get National ID for identification purposes”, they said. “You don’t get a passport every day, so it’s fine”, they said. “It’s JUST $2,000”, they said. That reaction too, is expected.
The middle class is out of touch at best and holds contempt for the poor at worst. Ever notice how as soon as you start talking about poverty and the depraved way many people are living in Jamaica, the middle class swoops in with the very tired, largely exaggerated and stereotypical arguments about poor people choosing to be hungry while they spend money to buy expensive clothes and hairdos? Privilege is a hell of a thing.
Why should a passport be above the affordability of such a large section of the population? If our concern is more with the fact that so many people turned out to beat the increase or that people are protesting the increase then we are already lost.
Many people don’t and probably will never know the difference $2,000 can make in the life of someone who is existing on an impossibly meagre salary. Many will also never understand what it means to have to save for months to be able to get a passport. And we are generally not in the business of empathizing with the poor so there goes even an attempt at trying to put ourselves in those shoes.
There is the argument that a passport is not a necessity and therefore the hullabaloo is much ado about nothing. These persons are clearly unaware that there are many transactions that you need two government issued photo IDs for. Like encashing a cheque at a commercial bank. Unless you have a driver’s license (which is also not a ‘necessity’) that passport would come in handy. This requirement also applies to collecting 500 USD or more at Western Union. Lest we forget, remittances are the source of livelihood for many Jamaicans.
Another criticism is that “these same people pay more to get visas over and over”. And what? Where do I even start with this? Is it lost on us that so many people are trying to run away from this hell hole by any means necessary for the very fact that for many it is simply impossible to live a comfortable life? Are we also suggesting that poor people have no right to travel? How dare poor people harbour the thought of traveling! Stay in your lane!
These sentiments are age-old and are linked to the idea that most poor people don’t want to or don’t work hard enough or that they want handouts. This is simply not true and we are missing the point that the issue is that they are operating in a system that does not value them; a system that does not afford them the opportunities and skills to be autonomous and to earn a decent, dignified income.
Perhaps as the middle class shrinks and many of us find ourselves in the same positions the poor occupy, we will begin to recognize and understand the fallacies of our pronouncements and indictments.