‘END POVERTY IN THE MARIANAS’

Special commission created to root out poverty

Acting governor Ralph Torres signed Monday an executive order to create a “special commission on economic opportunity” in the CNMI that will target the widespread problem of poverty in the Commonwealth.

This unprecedented policy initiative comes in the wake of Typhoon Soudelor, which not only left the CNMI in a state of disaster but also unveiled persistent hardships that saw hundreds in shelters and in need of immediate food and water assistance.

Acting governor Ralph Torres delivers a speech yesterday at the "State Innovation Model" conference at the Pacific Islands Club Saipan. (Dennis B. Chan)

Acting governor Ralph Torres delivers a speech yesterday at the “State Innovation Model” conference at the Pacific Islands Club Saipan. (Dennis B. Chan)

Poverty affects all, the directive says. More than 8,000 Commonwealth households in 2013 made less than the annual salary of a full-time employee on minimum wage, the directive notes, and low-income households are especially vulnerable to displacements and are least able to access safe housing after natural disasters.

According to the directive, the special commission will advise Gov. Eloy S. Inos and will be chaired by the lieutenant governor’s office. It will “map the causes and systemic nature of poverty in the CNMI” and review existing laws, regulations, and policies of government agencies to make sure they concur with poverty reduction goals.

The special commission will develop and share a comprehensive list of community services available to low-income residents. It will push initiatives and programs that support “self-sufficiency” and engage the community with shared poverty reduction goals, the directive notes.

The commission will develop a strategic plan to guide both local and federal policy and legislation in alleviating poverty. It will also seek funding and resources needed for the commission’s goals.

Vicious cycle

Torres, who has been visiting homes as part of recovery efforts following the devastation of Typhoon Soudelor, recently dropped by a home in Kagman whose roof had been torn away by the storm. An older woman greeted him by attempting to stand up from her mattress on the only leg she had.

“She a was diabetic,” Torres said in a speech yesterday at a health conference where he unveiled plans for the new commission, “whose disease took something from her that we will never truly replace.”

“There is a resilience in our people that is unmatched,” Torres said. “We will always use what we can to rise, but now more than ever, we need a stronger foundation of support to hold us up.

“The conversations and experience from around our island led to many discussions about where we didn’t do our utmost for the many families making do with what they have to survive.”

“There is no denying that a systemic problem exists in our islands,” Torres said. “Fifty-one percent of the individuals living in the CNMI are beneath the poverty line. More than 1,800 families make less than $5,000 a year. Forty-five percent of our medical referral patients need immediate health care directly, caused by the damaging effects of non-communicable diseases,” which he said claims seven out of 10 people who pass away in the CNMI.

“There exists a vicious cycle of poverty that trap so many families in our islands and this cycle stems from three fundamental potholes toward prosperity—jobs, opportunity, and health,” he said.

“Any way you look at the situation, a failure in one of these three continually impacts the others in a spiral toward greater poverty, less labor participation, fewer opportunities for mobility, and poorer health outcomes.”

He said the plan they are working on would require bold action and political courage in all levels of government.

He said the conversations have led to the formation of the commission to address the root cause of the problems in the community “…to tackle the root causes of poverty and help…the many families who quietly struggle to make do with what little they have day in and day out.”

“We have numerous programs and services in our government dedicated to serve those in the most need. But we need to do our part to ensure that a family receiving food stamps is strengthened by this program to one day drive past the food stamp office to a store where they buy groceries they need on a well-earned paycheck.”

“The goal of this commission is not to advocate for the broad and all-encompassing redistribution of wealth, nor is it an added layer of bureaucracy shrouding our goals in needless red tape,” Torres said. “The commission will be tasked with finally coordinating the many services we provide to low-income households in the CNMI so that we are providing our residents the tools to build a better life for themselves, instead of giving them programs to live off of.”

Support

“I think it’s an exciting first step,” said Rep. Angel Demapan (R-Saipan) when sought for comment. “We have a lot of social issues and the biggest of that being poverty.”

“One of the socially determinative factors of health is poverty,” Esther Muña, Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. chief executive officer, told Saipan Tribune yesterday. “We need to take care of that.”

“People don’t have to be suffering, trying to rebuild their houses but also not taking care of their health because they can’t afford it,” she said. “If you look at the hierarchy of needs, health is probably at the bottom, but that’s really one of our needs. [We need] to have the commission identify how we can help the people who are living in poverty, and how do we help them get back on their feet so they can improve their health.”

Tinian Mayor Joey Patrick San Nicolas looks forward to working with the administration on the new commission. “I am very pleased that that is the initiative. I fully support it. I think poverty is an issue that we must deal with, and it was most evident after Soudelor happened. There were many people without homes, many people without any ability to afford healthcare.”

According to the directive, the commission will be made up of members from the public, including those who are qualified for food stamps, housing vouchers, or similar. It will be made up of private agencies and programs, the business community, lawmakers, the Office of the Attorney General, the Northern Marianas College, and executive branch departments like the Department of Commerce, the Commonwealth Development Authority, Northern Marianas Housing Corp., and CNMI Medicaid Office, among others.

The directive aims to create a “multifaceted network of partnerships, coalitions, nonprofit organizations, and governmental agencies…to end poverty in our islands.”

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Dennis B. Chan | Reporter
Dennis Chan covers education, environment, utilities, and air and seaport issues in the CNMI. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Guam. Contact him at dennis_chan@saipantribune.com.

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