Why GDP Matters: Compare Jamaica To Barbados

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When it comes to economic indicators, none may be more abstract than GDP per capita. It is the measure of all goods and services a country produces, divided by its population. Take two countries that seem alike in almost every important way — from geography, climate, colonial history and government structure — but one has a much lower GDP. The differences between Jamaica and Barbados are striking.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Now, let's take a case history of sorts, comparing a country that ran up big debts and a country that did not. Each country is a Caribbean island - Jamaica and Barbados. Alex Blumberg, of our Planet Money team, visited both. He found the consequences in a change of GDP per capita - gross domestic product. That's the total amount of goods and services produced in a country divided by the country's population. That affected other measures, like reading, writing and arithmetic.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I went to two elementary schools - one in Jamaica and one in Barbados, both in working class, urban neighborhoods. Jamaica and Barbados are both former British colonies, both parliamentary democracies. But the Jamaican government made a bunch of decisions after independence that weighed it down with debt. As a consequence, its economy barely grew, and now its GDP per capita is a third of what it is in Barbados. And that difference has huge implications in a place like this.

BLUMBERG: (Foreign language spoken)

BLUMBERG: I'm in a classroom in Allman Town Elementary School in Kingston, Jamaica, standing next to a bunch of boys who high five every time they get a right answer on a multiple-choice health quiz. The principal, Kandi-Lee Crooks- Smith, is giving me a tour, and my first hint of how GDP affects the lives of kids.

A low GDP means governments don't have as much tax revenue, which means they can't spend very much on their schools. In Allman Town, Crooks-Smith has to find creative ways to pay for bare essentials - extra toilet paper, cleaning supplies, even the whiteboard at the front of this classroom.

BLUMBERG: The whiteboard was actually provided by the teacher himself because the school can't afford to change the chalkboards.

BLUMBERG: GDP affects the lives of kids here in another way as well. In Jamaica, every sixth grader takes a test, and the test determines where you go to high school. If you do well in the test, you go to a decent school, which prepares you for college and a professional job. But if you don't score near the top on this test, you go to something called a non-traditional high school, where there are far fewer resources.

BLUMBERG: The odds are more against them.

BLUMBERG: And what does that mean when the odds are - what does that mean? They graduate and...

BLUMBERG: For most of them in the non-traditional high schools, you have a lot of behavioral problems, and I think most of the students just basically give up.

BLUMBERG: If you graduate from one of these schools, your options are limited to low-paying non-skilled work. You might drop out of the labor force entirely and find work in the informal economy - drugs, gangs, simply selling stuff on the side of the road. I talked to the Jamaican Minister of Education, who told me the problem is that there simply aren't enough high schools in Jamaica.

He figures he needs another 150 to meet the demand, which would take about a billion dollars U.S. to build - a billion dollars that Jamaica, with its low GDP per capita, does not have. I asked Kandi-Lee Crooks-Smith, the principal, if the government did have the money to give her, what would she do with it?

BLUMBERG: I have hired a reading teacher, not the American history either, but I'm thinking if I could get just one extra person every classroom to focus on the reading alone, I think we would achieve way more than what we're doing right now.

BLUMBERG: Now, let's head to Barbados, specifically the Lawrence T. Gay Primary School in the largest city in Barbados, Bridgetown. The principal here, Beverly Paris, walks me around from classroom to classroom. Her school, like the school in Jamaica, has lots of bright colors, lots of shapes cut from construction paper on the walls. But the Barbados government, because of the higher GDP, has access to a lot more money, which means more resources and classrooms like the one Beverly Paris is showing me.

BLUMBERG: Television on the wall and so and so.

BLUMBERG: Television is like a little - it's like a server closet.

BLUMBERG: Yes. Multimedia projectors, video cameras here, the whole works.

BLUMBERG: And that's funded by the minister...

BLUMBERG: (Unintelligible).

BLUMBERG: So in terms of what you wish you had versus what you actually have, it's not that big a difference, right?

BLUMBERG: Not really. As I said, in our class (unintelligible) we should accomplish.

BLUMBERG: In Barbados, almost every sixth grader can read. In Jamaica, a quarter can't. The kids are just as bright, the teachers as hardworking. The only difference is one little statistic.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Blumberg.

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