By now everybody in St Kitts and Nevis should know that Social Security is holding public discussions leading to reform.  The aim is to strengthen the Fund and give it sustainability for as far into eternity as we can project, but definitely for the next generation.  A committee, now of eleven persons, has been commissioned to work with the people, supported by a team of staff members.

We have encountered much disbelief and much amazement among the public as we have explained how Social Security works and why it is approaching the crossroads. One of these disbeliefs is that Social Security is as generous as it is, and the other is that members cannot pass on “their” money to a beneficiary of their choice.  The major amazement is that there are so many benefits to be derived and that a pensioner’s money never runs out for as long as they are alive.

My amazement comes from the pervasive confusion in peoples’ minds over retirement and pension age. To the best of my knowledge, the country has no retirement age.  The government has one, optional at age 55, compulsory at age 60 with month to month or contractual arrangements thereafter.  But there is no statutory age at which an employer must force out an employee.

Notwithstanding, normally at age 62 your Social Security pension [or grant] kicks in, whether you are at work or not.  I say normally because there are certain circumstances in which a member of Social Security can qualify for pension before age 62.

But it is the challenge that I really want to focus on in this issue.  If nothing changes, Social Security will be paying out all that it is taking in within the next 20 years.  And forty years later, it will have cashed in all of its investments in order to pay benefits.  How then do we, as a people, stare down this challenge?

The stare-down begins with acceptance. Accept that the design of Social Security which allowed for a inter-generational period of 30 – 33 years is now mature.  Accept that fewer young people are being born to carry the caring for our elderly. Accept that immigration will not attract the influx of people that is required.  Accept that people are living longer, that pension amounts are increasing, that you pay in for 42 years maximum, but clean out the “account” within 7 years after pensionable age.  Accept that short term benefits like sickness payments need to be controlled.  Accept that we are not getting the best returns on our assets.

Accept the principles of equity, universality and solidarity.  We are all for one and one for all and you are the one we are all for!

The second stage calls for the sacrifice.  They who came before us have given their sacrifice, now it is our turn. Sacrifice an increase in the pensionable age. Sacrifice for an increase in contribution rates from the 5% that it has been for the last 30 years. Sacrifice the existing ceiling of EC$6,500.00 above which no contributions are paid.  Sacrifice by placing a ceiling on pension payments. And sacrifice by trusting management to hunt out better yielding but safe international activities in which to invest.   This is where the debate is – how much sacrifice is necessary and how much sacrifice are we willing to make in order to raise an additional EC$25 million or so?

The third stage calls for commitment.  Every body has to play their part.  No more underhanded arrangements between employer and employee.  No more dodging by the self employed.  No more non-payment of contributions and no more exploitation of immigrants, the new, the young and the naïve.

Fourthly, the stare-down calls for consensus building.  It is important that every voice be heard and its message must be registered.  Understand, however, that nothing, I repeat, nothing will be done to harm Social Security. Yes, we would all like to have more benefits earlier, but that will only serve to shorten, not lengthen the life of the Fund.

The fifth component of the stare-down is the application of strong political will.  The committee that is spearheading the reform is comprised of members of all the political parties which have a presence in parliament and I am pleased to announce that they are working well together with no rancour.   Witness the decorum of Eugene Hamilton, a politician for the Peoples Action Movement, as he conducts meetings (himself and  Clifford Thomas of the St Kitts-Nevis Labour Union); and how Oscar Walters of the Concerned Citizens Movement and Llewellyn ‘Duke’ Parris of the Nevis Reformation Party work together in Nevis.

This is a clear demonstration of consensus building and political willingness. (The other members of the Committee are Ms. Patricia Claxton, Carlyle James and Damion Hobson of the business sector, Mrs. Diane Dunrod-Francis representing youths and Mrs. Adina Taylor of the Nevis Teachers Union).

But our greater search is to find triggers that will make Social Security self regulating. This would set up coefficients within the system that will force and guide the Minister’s hand into reform. Three such triggers come to mind. One is the co-efficient between the ceiling and insurable wages, a second is that co-efficient between pensionable age and life expectancy and the third is the reserve to expenditure ratio.  These and other co-efficients will be discussed in a later article.

Meanwhile, we urge the public to take advantage of these open discussions. Come visit us or invite us to come to you. Our address is Bay Road, Basseterre; Chapel Street, Nevis: telephone 465 2535 or 469 5245; website www.socialsecurity.kn and the e-mail is ssb.reform@socialsecurity.kn.   Tell us what you think!