The root causes of generational poverty in the Caribbean today

Posted on | mei 11, 2011 | No Comments

This essay aims to deal with the fallacy of scholarship to identify the root-causes of poverty from both systemic and social perspective. This essay furthermore ponders on the confounding factors of generational poverty in Afro-community-societies. This essay is part of a research project that seeks to unravel why poverty targets specific social and racial categories. What, for example, typifies generational poverty? What makes poverty in Afro community-societies seems to be so set, pervasive and encompassing? What are the vulnerabilities of said community-societies, and why are they not addressed?

Key conceptions
1. Matrifocality: attentuates to a family consisting of a lone-mother with one or more children. I use this term instead of matriarchy or matriarchical, because the latter mentioned attentuates to a broader conception, to female headed households, to the recognition of kinship through maternal lines instead of the paternal (Jews and Marroons in Suriname).

2. Generational poverty attenuates to long-term poverty, that encompasses several generations of one single family, typically hitting certain social categories, such as unmarried women, and certain racial categories.

Key Questions for Research
The idea of the earlier mentioned project is to establish a link between generational poverty, lack of effective leadership, by pondering what actually impedes Black leadership. What are the reasons behind lack of political leverage to influence political agendas, to become stakeholders in the decision-making, to in fact determine policy-making?

This essay theorizes that generational poverty is grounded on two key characteristics that emerged during slavery: 1) limited social solidarity and; 2) matrifocality. Said two key features are identified by both scholarship and the general discourse as pivotal and culturally determining but also in terms of gender-disparities (see articles by the Jamaica Gleaner). Explanations why poverty continues to hamper social well-being and economic development are typified by their strong Marxist overtone and oral tradition, but overtly not on well-rounded empirical research.

The issue at hand is that without matrifocality, female-centered families, instead of couple-centered families, Afro-community would not have survived slavery. During slavery, female slaves took care of off-spring, raising and keeping children alive under less than favorable circumstances. The reasoning here is that Matrifocality gave rise to existing Afro community societies but that it became obsolete after Emancipation.

The reasoning here is that matrifocality is closely connected with the cleavage (=vault-lines) structures that emerged during slavery, the cleavage between plantation slaves (preadials) and city slaves (domestics). Said cleavage after Emancipation gave rise to the urban-rural dichotomy, dividing Afro-community societies in the Caribbean into cultural and religious spaces after Emancipation. The relevance of said cleavages is that they negate the suggestion that Afro-community-societies in the Caribbean are a homogenized group of people, tied together by one common bond, Africa.

The Literature for example teaches that life on the estates was dire, for example, estate-slaves, worked on average, more and longer hours, in comparison with house slaves on the estates or in comparison with slaves living in the city. City slaves had more contact with Europeans and could therefore easily adopt said value system (Forbes 1996). City slaves on average had more free time, and therefore better opportunity to work save money for manumission, education and to escape poverty.

Van Lier (1950) links proselytizing to access to education, care and social organization (sports-club, trade organizations, choirs), and thus suggests that education gave impetus to social mobility, henceforth social structure. Said suggestion that can be extrapolated to other parts of the Caribbean, despite claims that many converted continued to practice African religions of Obeah (Jamaica), Shango (Trinidad, Cuba), Winti (Suriname).

One can argue that proselytizing became the integrative force after emancipation. Said argument indeed holds true in the case of the city. The situation in the peripheries in contrast, was quite different, due to a rapid decline of the number of estates combined with a steady influx of indentured brought in to take over estate jobs from the apprentices. This colonial policy forced many Blacks out of the estate into the cities. In the city, lack of employment, but also limited access to education gave rise to an under-class consisting of Blacks migrants (Similar proclivities can be found from the relocation of Blacks from the Southern States to the North).

The city with its specific mores codes of conduct, and western-style culture made seamless integration of the newcomers challenging, at best. It seems that people had a difficult time negotiating the differences between their African heritage and the city-European – culture. Many freed also had problems with the dogmatic and compulsory approach of the clergy to instill European values and norms, simply stopped attending service. In the Dutch Caribbean regulations to ban the Winti culture forced worshippers to go underground, in other parts of the Caribbean, practicing remained part of the rural Black culture.

The suggestion that deep cultural vault-lines between the city and the plantation that in fact hampered social integration, is based on general studies of cleavages by for example Rokkan (1966) [1], Lipset & Rokkan (1967) [2], cited by Mair (1990), grounded on the conception that a society is structured in (pivotal) cleavages, called ‘cleavage structure base’. Similar social structures and stratification determined social development in the Caribbean, and every other society for that matter.

Limited Social Cohesion
Of equal concern is the theory of the plantation as a loosely connected space, with limited overarching contact, a hypothesis that premised Van Lier’s (1950a) ‘The development and nature of society in the West Indies’. Said work regards the sociological structure of the plantation as a society, a viewpoint that gives rise to idea of the plantation as a space, rather than a place. Of equal concern is the intellectual notion of the plantation as a microcosm. But what actually was the place of the slaves within structure of the estate? Should one not premise all theorizing on the inherent unequal structure of the estate? Should one in fact, not argue the absence of interaction between the personal, the immediate surroundings and the broader society, when the plantation is concerned?

Literature teaches the dimensionality between individual interaction, the immediate surroundings and the broader society. The reasoning here is that social interaction occurs at various levels all interconnected, a society.

I regard the plantation as an economic space in which individuals collided and cohabited in a pseudo social setting. Said qualification complements the position and status of the plantation as a link in the commodities chain. Indeed, the sheer economic grounding of Slave trade and slavery, a profit-driven business venture, did not recognize the human component of slavery, viewing every aspect that attenuated to, or resembled humanness as unwelcome byproducts. Said grounding explains why human interactions such as contact, communication and inter-personal relationships were blithely discouraged, making it impossible for individual slaves to bond beyond the superficial.

Relevant for the analysis of social cohesion is also the fact that a random slave population on an estate, consisted of individuals whose origins could be traced back to a myriad of African regions and countries, social backgrounds, languages and cultures. See for example, Lovejoy’s (2009) work on the tracing the origins of Slaves. The back tracking of the original homelands, its massiveness and scope of enslavements, encasing the entire African continent, corroborates my claim of a pseudo-society. The conception of ‘homogenizing tendencies’ is negated by the work of Lovejoy (ibid) , but also by Van Lier (1950b), who demonstrated that the Surinamese slave population came from different African regions and consisted of a myriad of ethnicities, cultures and religions. It is therefore of logical consequences that such a plurality could only be negotiated if the estate resembled a highly hierarchical pecking-order type of social structure.

It is plausible that the structure of the estate impeded society building after Emancipation? Should one assume the irreversibility of broken social bonds, a proclivity of every migration, instead of consistently reasoning along the lines of cultural purity, so typical of Black and Africana studies? The problem is the limited availability of credible and costly data to underpin the theory of ‘the perpetuity of displacement’? Sourcing from general research on displacement and migration, to argue that the psychological impact of ‘ontheemd zijn’ (Dutch: displacement English) is indeed profound. But are aspects that typify displacement such as loss of identity, culture, childhood memory, language not confined to the first or second generation, at best? What if any is the impact of displacement for later generations?

I find myself in Lovejoy (2009) in his intellectual conception of Diaspora, a conception that primarily focuses on the recognition of boundaries, one side associated with the homeland, and the other with the Diaspora. Pivotal is to qualify enslavement are (forced) migration, in order to recognize that the struggle of slaves and later Freed to negotiate the aforementioned boundaries.

Pivotal for this discourse is to ponder if the conception of Diaspora does not diametrically oppose earlier identified key determinants of enslavement? How do conceptions of matrifocality and limited social cohesion fit into the conception of Diaspora? Harkening back to the theory that matrifocality helped to sustain the Slave population, but that it became obsolete after enslavement. The assumption is that matrifocality continued to sustain certain social categories, specifically those categories that migrated to the city. The city offered limited possibilities to the freed fresh from the estates, making it impossible to settle and start a family. But a man without means could full well procreate, while not accepting financial and moral responsibility the off-spring. Indeed, men oftentimes ducked, putting the sole responsibility on the shoulders of women to raise a family under less than favorable conditions. The paradox here is that enslavement cloaked the irresponsible attitude of Black males while civilian life fully uncovered the devastation of this behavior. Matrifocality after Emancipation meant poverty, gender disparities, failure to finish school and crime, but above all attenuated to troubled female-male relationships.

Cabaniss & Fuller (2005, p.144), cite Iceland (2003) to argue the presence of a ‘social stratification across social groups determines who becomes poor‘, an argument that underwrites my suggestion that poverty of lone mothers is linearly connected to earning capacity, years of education and the percentage of income spend on the raising of children. The ceterus paribus reasoning is here that if earning capacity increases than poverty decreases. The problem today is that gender inequality in Black community-societies is ingrained and pervasive. Problematic are divergent images: the image of the strong, independent and capable Black females who take care of their children, and the image of poverty, unemployment, teen pregnancies, school-drop out and criminal male adolescents. The image of a strong Black women stems from literature Ntozake Shangy, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, but also from culture, attitudes and perception. Ironic is for example the stern warning given to Black young girls in Suriname not to rely on a husband but on diploma’s, because of high percentages of teen-pregnancy and school drop-out.

The fallacy of governments to recognize that gender-disparities impede economic development cannot solely be attributed to policy-makers and political leaders. It is correct that existing institutions ignore matrifocality, rather the struggle of lone-mothers to make ends meet, bearing the brunt of responsibility. It is at this point unclear if policy can foster change or at least improve the status of lone-mothers. The pervasiveness of poverty, hinges on its complexity, its dimensionality, its cyclical proclivity that cannot be explained from the perspective of post-colonial or from the humanities.

There is little empirical evidence linking contemporary matrifocality to limited social solidarity, I think that both aspects are determining, but in and out of themselves.

Tang Nain & Baily’s (2003. P.182-3) conclusions that women’s own efforts to survive, without asking for assistance, foregrounds the difficulty to establishment of what they call a ‘scientific baseline‘. A closer scrutiny of a random sample of women’s organizations in Suriname, Haiti, Jamaica [Edie 1991, Fatton 2002] teaches that they received ample funding and assistance from external donors. The Surinamese women’s organization, Nationale Vrouwen Beweging (NVB) exemplifies how these types of NGO manage to secure large quantities of funding from in this case the European Union, to professionalize their organization. A closer look at their website (www. teaches that there strive is to strengthen the economic, judicial and social position of women in Suriname, in collaborative effort with domestic and international actors. There is however little evidence that they achieved some of said goals since the professionalization of their organization in 1995. The case of the NVB is not an isolated one, Edie and Fatton also detected similar proclivities in Jamaica and Haiti, demonstrating the fallacy of structural aid to benefit the grass-roots, or to at least trickle down. The empirics of aid, rather its benefits to aid the poor and the weak in fact nullifies the claim by Tang Nain & Baily (ibid, p.184) that lack of change stems from ‘the praxis of top-down patriarchal driven market structures of benefit trickling down to the poor‘. It is not realistic to persist in the argumentation that Afro-community societies are passive, innocent bystanders whose soaring and persistent poverty occurs beyond their control. The breath of neo-liberalism theory and market driven conceptions is only as wide as the individual and collective efforts allow.

Research on Suriname and Jamaica continue to demonstrate the negative impact of weak party systems, of limited social solidarity, of disenfranchisement and divorce [Edie 1991; Adama 2008]. Electoral results show consistent trends of people voting against their interests; their proclivity to favor strong-men (tori-mans and populist leaders) instead of adroit and affable leaders with the capacity to end poverty, also negate prevailing perceptions of Caribbean nations continuously influenced by international tendencies. It is time that scholarship accepts that policy comes to live under the conscious and implicit consent and watch of the voters, and that voters have the power to punish incumbents for mistakes made at the ballots. Afro-community societies form no exception to that rule; there is nothing that attenuates or justifies to exclusivity, politics is color blind, as are interest, demand, organization and leadership.

When assessing generational poverty in the Caribbean, the confounding elements of Afro-community societies, stemming from enslavement need to be incorporated. The pivotal role of both matrifocality and limited social solidarity for society building needs to be assessed on its merit, without hiding behind the intellectual walls of Marx, Engels and theories on neoliberals. This essay merely attempted to raise the subject, aware of the pitfalls, the sensitivities and the existing intellectual lacuna.

Looking at poverty from a political and economical perspective does provide some clarity on its tenacity, its set character. To however illuminate obscure and unknown aspects of generational poverty, in dept historical research will have to be conducted.

At policy and decision- making level, the eradication of poverty in the Caribbean, requires effective policy making and economic incentivizing but also increasing involvement of grass-roots and women’s organizations. But the reducing of gender disparities will require substantial political will and effective leadership, two aspects that are currently lacking in many Caribbean societies. But the silence on the part of pronouncers, to force change and transformation is a reality that makes assessment on the effectiveness and role of stakeholders difficult, at best.

Adama, Natascha. 2008. Venezuela, Surinam, Jamaica y Uruguay: relevancia de los partidos políticos para la democracia, ayer y hoy, via :

Carbaniss, Emily, R & Jill E. Fuller. 2005. Ethnicity, Race and Poverty Among Single Women: A Theoretical Synthesis in: Race, Gender and Class website (pp. 142-162)
Edie, Carlene.1991. Democracy by Default: Dependency and Clientelism in Jamaica, Boulder, Co.: Lynne Rienner Publishers

Fatton, Robert. 2002. Haiti’s predatory republic: the unending transition to democracy, Boulder, Co.: Lynne Rienner Publishers

Lier van, Rudolf. 1950 a. The development and nature of society in the West Indies (Amsterdam: Uitgave van Het Indisch Instituut, 1950.)

___________ 1950b. Frontier society. A social analysis of the history of Surinam. Edition: The Hague, Martinus Nijhoof, 1971.

Lovejoy, Paul. E. 2009. Extending the Frontiers of Transatlantic Slavery, Partially in: Journal of Interdisciplinary History, xl:1 (Summer, 2009), 57–70.

Mair, Peter. Ed.1990. The West European party system Oxford [England]; New York; Oxford University Press, 1990.

[1] See: Mair, Peter. Ed.1990. The West European party system Oxford [England]; New York; Oxford University Press, 1990.
[2] ibid

AUTHOR: Natascha Adama
E-MAIL: nataliapestova23 [@]


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