The rate of child poverty in Trinidad and Tobago constitutes a staggering 50% of those living in poverty on the islands. This can negatively impact a variety of facets in a child’s life including their access to a quality education.
As children account for more than 200,000 of the country’s population, UNDP, UNICEF and the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services (MSDFS) conducted research in 2017 to gauge the youth’s perception of and experience with poverty in order to better understand issues of poverty affecting children in Trinidad and Tobago.
Across varying regions of Trinidad and Tobago including Sangre Grande, Arima and Tunapuna, the study assessed children’s experiences through a multidimensional perspective of poverty — referring to aspects of living in poverty that extend beyond basic income such as the absence of familial support, poor health and a lack of educational access.
Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI)
With a multidimensional approach to measuring poverty, UNDP reported on Trinidad and Tobago’s 2022 Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). The index is measured on a yearly basis according to a country’s deprivations across three dimensions: “health, education and standard of living.” The country’s MPI value amounted to 0.002, with deprivations in the standard of living, health and education contributing 20.5%, 45.5% and 34% respectively to this dimension in total.
In regard to deprivations in education, following the pandemic school dropouts increased with an estimated 151 primary school students and 2,663 secondary school students dropping out of government schools in Trinidad between the beginning of 2020 and the end of 2022. Some reasons for these dropout rates were attributed to loss of jobs, subsequent financial distress and the need for older children to aid their parents in caring for their younger siblings.
National Child Policy
Nevertheless, the Ministry of Social Development has made efforts to address the difficulties faced in education as a product of child poverty in Trinidad and Tobago.
In accordance with the 2020-2030 National Child Policy of Trinidad and Tobago which outlines the country’s commitment to ensuring positive outcomes for the nation’s children, the government has continuously set out to alleviate the financial inequities that can act as a barrier to children’s engagement in educational institutions.
To attenuate the financial burden of obtaining school meals for those facing experiencing child poverty in Trinidad and Tobago, the National Schools Dietary Services focuses on providing free breakfasts and lunches throughout primary and secondary schools. Between 2013 and 2014, children in need received 64,422 breakfasts and 96,448 lunches.
Moreover, in support of the program’s services to impoverished communities, the Draft Estimates of Expenditure for 2023 indicates that the National Schools Dietary Services has received a more significant budget allocation for the 2023 fiscal year – an additional $181.8 million in comparison with its 2022 budget of $88.9 million. This increased financial allocation enables the program to continue its standard operation of improving the nutritional status of children in order to enhance their learning ability through the daily provision of catering services to students across 800 schools in Trinidad and Tobago.
Children also are able to partake in a textbook rental and loan program, which has delivered more than 203,000 books and learning materials to students. Moreover, free school health program services including vision exams, hearing tests and psychosocial support are free to children up to 14 years old, according to the National Child Policy Green Paper.
Early Child Care Education (ECCE)
Similarly, through recognizing the foundational importance of Early Child Care Education (ECCE) the Government of Trinidad and Tobago has also invested in providing free ECCE centers. These centers promote the holistic transition of young children — ranging from the ages of 3 to 4 — into the education system, according to the National Child Policy Green Paper.
The accessibility of these ECCE centers sets out to bridge the gap in experience and resources experienced by children living in poverty through a curriculum that emphasizes skill building and development in the “physical, cognitive, linguistic and socioeconomic areas.”
According to the National Child Policy Green Paper. there are 151 fully operational Government and Government Assisted ECCE centers throughout Trinidad and Tobago.
Making Plans to Prioritize Children
Efforts from the government to combat child poverty in Trinidad and Tobago have also taken the shape of plans to prioritize children through a commitment to a National Implementation Plan with varying strategies to improve the welfare of children in need. These strategies range from ensuring the provision of quality physical and mental health services for children, increasing the accessibility of education and learning opportunities and an aim to create spaces safe for children’s recreation — each allotted a total budget of more than $3 million for its enactment, according to the National Child Policy Green Paper.
The initiatives adopted by the government to alleviate the educational barriers faced by children in poverty indicate a step toward achieving the first of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals to eradicate poverty. As estimates indicate the cost of halving child poverty by 2030 can cost 0.3% of GDP. Continuously investing in advancing children’s education could contribute to improving Trinidad and Tobago’s social and economic development.
– Katrina Girod