Hong Kong is a prosperous city with a per capita gross domestic product of HK$268,213 in 2011. Yet, in the middle of this great prosperity, we see the saddening sight of elderly people collecting waste paper and discarded items on the streets.
Who are they, and why do they do it? The Hong Kong Council of Social Service conducted a study of these elderly scavengers six years ago and found that more than 70 per cent of them did it because they needed the money. What we were astonished to find was that more than 40 per cent of them were living with their families.
Our study last year on deprivation among the elderly fleshed out these earlier findings. We found that nearly one-third of the elderly lived without financial support from their families. Of those living alone, 40 per cent were without family financial support. But even among those who continued to live with their family, 12.5 per cent of them received no financial support.
These elderly poor are among the most deprived in society: 85 per cent of them could not afford regular dental check-ups; 66 per cent of them did not have money to consult a private doctor in case of sudden sickness; some did not even have enough warm clothing in cold weather.
Obviously, their families are not providing them with anywhere near enough support. Yet government policies ignore this reality. They continue to reflect the conventional thinking that families should be responsible for helping their older members, at least financially.
Hence, application for aid is based on an eligibility means test that assesses household income and assets, not just those of the senior citizen concerned. Both the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance and the pilot scheme for community care service vouchers for the elderly work this way.
There are various reasons why families do not provide care for their elderly members. Some simply cannot afford to.
The experience of Ms Ko, who scavenges to earn money, illustrates the problem. She lives in Kwun Tong with her daughter, who works as a clerk and earns a salary that is barely enough for her own living expenses and the payment of electricity and water charges, let alone Ms Ko's medical bills and daily expenses.
In such situations, CSSA is not the safety net some people imagine it to be. An elderly person who wants aid must apply for it via his or her children, who may be required to write a so-called 'bad son letter' declaring that they cannot or will not take financial care of their parent. Many cannot face this humiliation, and others fear the stigma associated with CSSA. The result is that many elderly fall through the safety net.
The new government has announced that it would double the old age allowance (the so-called 'fruit money') next year. But to further ease the burden of the elderly poor, it should also change the basis of its means testing for CSSA eligibility from household to individual income.
Meanwhile, the welfare sector is advocating a universal pension scheme that should ensure every elderly person in Hong Kong could live with dignity. Any feasible universal pension proposal should address the issues of adequacy, affordability and sustainability as well as non-stigmatisation.
It is important for the new government to plan and begin public consultation on old-age income protection as soon as possible. The community must reach a consensus in tackling this before the problem of elderly living in poverty goes beyond control.
It is a fact that the existing pension protection system is inadequate. To ensure financial security for an ageing population, we have to be realistic about families' ability and willingness to take care of their elderly members. We need to accept that the existing policies do not reflect the reality, and that we need to change our thinking and assumptions behind this area of welfare policy. Otherwise, we will just be leaving the elderly to suffer.
Mariana Chan Wai-yung is chief officer, policy research and advocacy, at The Hong Kong Council of Social Service