From the day Jonas Baptiste immigrated to the United States 27 years ago, a large portion of his earnings has been sent back to his family in Haiti. “I send as much as I can, to the point where I have more in Haiti then I do here,” explained Baptiste. He sends them about $500 to $600 each month. Over the years, the money has built homes for relatives and paid for everyday expenses like groceries and utility bills.“It’s hard,” he admitted. “I live in a studio apartment in Brooklyn because that’s all I can afford. I have financial responsibilities back home. I can’t forget that.”
The Haitian expatriate community sends about a billion dollars annually to Haiti — a quarter of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, according to data from Haiti’s Central Bank. The majority of the money comes from the United States and Canada. The country’s history of economic instability, especially in light of the 2010 earthquake, has left the economy increasingly dependent on money sent from relatives living abroad. Remittances to Haiti are the most stable source of national income and account for more revenue than the country’s investments and exports combined.
On average, Haitian immigrants send $150 a month back home, with one in five Haitian families receiving money from relatives abroad. But this often creates a financial burden for the senders, many of whom earn low wages.
They Just Don’t Understand
“They just didn’t understand that I have other responsibilities to take care of,” said Marie Jean- Claude, a mother living in Brooklyn. “I have my own bills and two children. I just couldn’t support my adult cousins, siblings and their families.” The burden was so difficult for Jean- Claude — family constantly calling for money and berating her when she couldn’t send — that she cut all contact. “I changed my number and didn’t give it to anyone.”
What the Numbers Say
$150 = Immigrants Average Monthly Remitance to Family
1 in 5 Haitian families receives remitances
Remitances account for ¼ of Haiti’s total GDP
Migrants commonly feel a moral obligation to send money to those who didn’t receive the chance to leave Haiti for economic opportunities elsewhere. Authors of George Woke Up Laughing: Long-Distance Nationalism and the Search for Home, Nina Schiller and Georges Fouron say Haitians living in America have “kinship responsibilities” that are affirmed by regularly sending money to relatives still in Haiti.
People who do not fulfill those responsibilities are looked at with hostility. “Those who provide economic support are given respect and status, whereas those unable to do so must sometimes cut ties with family living in Haiti,” Schiller explained. The expectations and pressure can lead to exploitative relationships, she said.
– Haitian immigrant Fitzgerald Charles
Although Jean-Claude said the financial cut-off was painful, she feels the choice was necessary for peace of mind and to focus on the needs of her children. “When I was single,without any kids, it was easy for me to send money on a regular basis. But now, I have children, a husband, mortgage and more bills than I can count. Who can I call for help when I’m going through a hard month? No one.”
Sending remittances is also a way to secure a back-up lifestyle if opportunities abroad do not pan out. “By investing their earnings in property, businesses and social relations in Haiti, immigrants forge other economic possibilities for themselves in homelands where U.S. dollars hold significant purchasing power,” said Schiller. Many Haitian immigrants express wanting to eventually go back “home,” so sending money to Haiti ensures they have a comfortable place to retire.
Economists Weigh In
The issue of sending remittances to relatives in other countries has drawn attention from government officials and international development agencies. Economists identify several positive effects. These include improving the welfare of a poorer nation, significantly contributing to a country’s GDP and providing a stable source of revenue. It can also help to curtail investor panic when foreign aid contributions from countries decrease.
“Remittances have a generally positive impact in terms of reducing poverty and inequality … however, the effects are generally modest,” states a World Bank report on remittance practices of Haiti and other developing countries. The World Bank views the practice as a path to development, but cautions remittances should not be used as a substitute for sound economic development policies.
More and more economists are speaking against remittance-based economies, arguing households who receive regular money from relatives prefer to live off remittances rather than work. They also argue that remittances promote financial dependency and reduce labor market participation, a key component to a country’s economic growth. If true, these factors pose considerable risk for recipient families in the event the flow of funds is disrupted.
We asked, you answered:
Do you send money back home to family in your native country?
To Send or Not To Send
Jean-Claude, the Brooklyn mother who cut ties to her family, acknowledged that they look at her with scorn and see her as selfish, but her priority is her children, she said. “It came to a point where I was making sacrifices that directly impacted my kids. That’s when I had had enough. These are adult men and women, not children. They should be able to rely on themselves when everyone else does it.”
But Haitian immigrant Fitzgerald Charles shares a different sentiment. “There are no jobs in Haiti. It’s not that they don’t want to work, they can’t,” he said. “If you can’t find a job in Haiti, there isn’t a government office you can go to apply for unemployment checks. You’re on your own.
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