Many of us love Jamaica for its tropical climate and natural beauty, its people, culture, and reggae music. Tourists who visit Jamaica for vacations often stay in luxurious hotels along beautiful beaches, unaware of the suffering going on in Jamaican communities. Traditionally, the Jamaican way of life has meant strong extended family networks and close-knit neighborhoods. Over time, chronic poverty and escalating violence have exerted increasing pressure on Jamaicans, undermining the unity and strength of families and communities. Persistent poverty, unemployment, and increasing levels of inequality have severely impacted the Jamaican population. Of those persons living under the poverty line, approximately 48.9% are children under the age of 18. In fact, Jamaica has an uncharacteristically young population, with a median age of 26 years. Approximately 57.0% of the population is under 30 years of age.
At 16.3%, Jamaica's rate of unemployment is about three percent above the regional average. The growth in jobs has averaged 1.3% per year - similar to increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), implying stagnation in labor productivity. There is no unemployment insurance scheme. Jamaica's external debt service is 62 percent, compared to the regional average of 40 percent. Debt servicing represents the biggest item in the Jamaican budget. Sixty-two cents of every dollar the government earns in revenue goes into debt servicing. With just 38 cents left for investments in physical and social infrastructure, the island's living conditions have steadily deteriorated. Education, health care and social services have suffered the most. Meanwhile efforts to establish meaningful technical training at the secondary and post-secondary levels have lagged due to resource constraints.
Government spending on education has also been severely affected - with many schools overcrowded and inadequately furnished, and buildings falling into disrepair. While near-universal primary school enrollment exists, the quality and efficiency of learning and teaching are a problem. It is calculated that 30 per cent of students, mostly boys, are functionally illiterate at the end of the primary cycle. Low attendance and drop-out rates increase by age. Only 3.6 per cent in the 0 to 3 year age group are enrolled in supervised early childhood care. Each year at age 11, primary students take the island-wide examination for entry into preparatory high schools. Currently there is room to place only one-third of all primary students in these schools. The thousands who are graduated each year from "new secondary" (i.e. non-academic) schools are essentially unemployable. Meanwhile, efforts to establish meaningful technical training at the secondary and post-secondary levels have lagged due to resource constraints.
Fees charged in public hospitals have dramatically increased and where the service was free to the poor, fees have been instituted. Surgery for breast cancer at the University Hospital of the West Indies, another public institution, runs up to 23,000 Jamaican dollars, and chemotherapy over a six-month period costs 150,000 dollars. With the minimum wage of 1,000 Jamaican dollars per week, and more than 750,000 persons said to be living below the poverty line, health care is becoming inaccessible to a large number of Jamaicans. In addition, over the last few years, dozens of health centers have had to be closed because the government can no longer afford to keep them open. Jamaica has high HIV/AIDS prevalence (1.6 per 1,000 persons). Nearly eight per cent of those infected are children under 10 years of age, with mother-to-child-transmission a major contributing factor. Almost eight per cent of the total reported cases are among children under the age of 10. Four fifths of infected children live in poor households, and one out of four will be abandoned. Among adolescents, infection rates have doubled every year since 1995, and adolescent girls are three times as likely as adolescent boys to become infected. The teenage fertility rate is high, at 112 per 1,000 births. Sexual initiation occurs as early as 10 years of age. Knowledge of contraception among adolescents is high, but it is estimated that only 50 per cent regularly use condoms.