Bold action needed to break poverty cycle

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 December, 2004, 12:00am

The plight of Hong Kong's poorest people has become difficult to justify and impossible to ignore. One in four children is estimated to live in poverty. Statistics suggest that the wealth gap - one of the world's widest - is growing. And our basic social security net is looking increasingly inadequate.

A photographic exhibition in Tsim Sha Tsui this week powerfully conveyed how serious this problem has become. It depicted children scavenging on our city's streets to help their families make ends meet. The scenes were more in keeping with the developing world than with 'Asia's world city'.

This worsening situation requires a bold response. The government has been slow to react. But Tuesday's announcement by Tung Chee-hwa suggests it is listening to the public's concerns - and taking the problem more seriously.

The chief executive revealed he intends to establish a poverty commission. This is a welcome and potentially ground-breaking development. In the past, officials insisted there was no need for such a body.

The details are, so far, limited. More will be made known in next month's policy address. But the commission will include members from outside the government. It provides an opportunity to get to grips with the problem and to devise a more sophisticated and comprehensive policy.

Mr Tung says he is keen to break the poverty cycle. But the familiar three-pronged approach he cited is unlikely to be sufficient on its own.

He argued that poverty would be alleviated by the rebound in the economy. The benefits of the recovery have not, however, reached many poorer sections of the community - nor are they likely to in the near future.

Retraining is another of Mr Tung's favourite themes. It will clearly continue to have an important role to play in helping improve the skills of less well-educated members of the workforce, making it easier for them to find jobs as the nature of our economy changes. But many schemes have already been put in place, and they are having a limited impact. Subsidising places on the retraining schemes could be the key to making them more effective.

The chief executive also stressed the importance of education. There is an urgent need to ensure that children from poor families are able to get access to education on equal terms with those who are better off. Education reforms are placing more emphasis on art, music, sport and other such activities. These often require extra-curricular tuition, which poorer families cannot afford. The lack of access to computers and cramped conditions at home also place obstacles in the way of these children.

Meanwhile, a lack of counselling and other forms of assistance is also breeding social problems, which can be seen in the suicide rate and in occasional horrific murder cases.

Perhaps the most important statement made by Mr Tung is his acceptance that the CSSA system is not always sufficient to provide the help that people need. The social safety net provides the bare minimum, even after recent cuts. But more should be done to provide help that goes beyond CSSA payments.

A solution is not easy to find, especially as a tight rein must be kept on public spending. But helping those in need does not necessarily require massive welfare spending or huge increases in the numbers receiving CSSA. Setting an official poverty line would be a good start. This would help the new commission to better understand the scale of the problem - and the precise difficulties that people face.

It is sometimes argued that the CSSA system provides a poverty line of its own. But this overlooks workers on low incomes and the many people who are too proud to claim the payments.

The setting up of a commission is an important step forward. But everything depends on who sits on it - and whether they are allowed to make a difference.