New package aimed at ending exclusion and easing 80,000 families out of poverty trap
Single parents on social security will be encouraged to find jobs, allowed to earn more income and enjoy free childcare under the Government's new welfare package.
Director of Social Welfare Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has revealed to the South China Morning Post full details of the package, called 'Ending Exclusion', which was touched on in Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's Policy Address last week.
It aims to ease Hong Kong's 80,000 single-parent families out of the poverty trap and the social isolation it causes. One-third of the families get Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA).
Social Welfare Department figures showed that at the end of last month, 27,500 single-parent families with about 44,000 children were on CSSA, an eight per cent increase from a year ago.
The department will soon make a proposal to the Legislative Council for the amount of allowable earnings under the CSSA to be raised for single-parent families. It means they could earn up to $2,500 a month from employment, instead of $1,805.
Single parents who have found jobs through the department's employment assistance scheme would be given coupons for free after-school childcare.
The department also wants to extend the provision of compassionate public housing to single-parent families as an incentive to single mothers and fathers to come off social security.
Mrs Lam said only seven per cent of single-parent families receiving CSSA were employed.
'That is a very low figure. Many single parents are very young - they should be motivated to work. The package has been triggered by our concern about the psychological well-being of those families, both for the parents and children,' Mrs Lam said.
More than 80 per cent of the single parents are in their 30s and 40s. Mrs Lam said she had visited some families in new towns such as Tin Shui Wai and Tuen Mun and found that some were 'living in isolation'.
'The mothers closed all the windows and doors and dared not go out except to the market to buy food. There is still a stigma towards single-parent families.
'We are not labelling single families but they are disadvantaged and they need additional help,' Mrs Lam said.
The 4,800 families with children aged between 12 and 14 would be the main target of the new scheme. 'Children over 12 will start full-day secondary school which gives parents more time to work,' Mrs Lam said.
She said the department's employment assistance programme for single parents was voluntary and parents would face no pressure to take a CSSA cut.
The department would refer the parents to training programmes and job attachments at non-government organisations.
Mrs Lam said the present CSSA payments were adequate for the families. A family of four can receive $10,531 a month.
'Raising the amount of disregarded earnings to $2,500 will be a win-win situation. The income for the family will increase and the Government will pay less. Even if the parents earn only $2,500 a month, the Government still has to pay the same amount of CSSA. But that's OK, I trust the extra money will go to the children.'
Mrs Lam said a coupon system for childcare services gave parents more flexibility. 'With the coupons, they can choose a childcare centre they like. We will then reimburse the agencies.'
The after-school care services would cost the department $1,400 a month for each child. The department plans to introduce the package by March.