We must ease the plight of children in poverty
Poverty, by itself, is usually not enough to undermine a child's future in Hong Kong. The government already offers a myriad of subsidies, from housing to welfare that mitigates the potentially devastating effects. But, when it is coupled with a lack of support at home, it creates a host of privations. And if these are not tackled, they are capable of causing long-lasting damage. In this sense, working to relieve poverty-stricken children is not charity, but necessary work.
At a time when government officials show a new willingness to invest more in social programmes, there is an urgent need to develop more effective and efficient help for poor children and their families. It does not mean we should throw more money at social programmes. This is not always effective, and it risks increasing welfare dependency. Rather, there is a need to increase the efficiency of available programmes and resources, and channel them with a more holistic view to target the specific problems. This is something the government is being called on to do by the Boys' and Girls' Clubs Association in a new survey.
There are 110,000 children under the age of 14 who receive Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA), and a similar number from low-income families. Not all of them suffer from privations, but a fair number do. Though the unemployment rate is at a record low of 4.1 per cent, the wages of low-income families have not risen and the total number of poor children has remained relatively constant over the years. This suggests the problem is structural. Interestingly, the association finds that many problems confronting low-income or unemployed families with children are fairly consistent and can be effectively tackled without a great deal of extra resources. On average, the association finds that poor children are likely to perform worse in English at school and have fewer opportunities to take part in extracurricular sport, music and arts lessons. Their ability to focus and ask questions is lower, and their diets are less balanced, with more of them either obese or underweight than average. Their dental health is not up to standard. Their self-esteem and social skills are also worse than their peers'. However, their ability to take care of themselves is better, mostly because many of their parents are often away.
There are funds and programmes focusing on many of these problems. But they are not working as efficiently as they should be, mainly because most operate in a piecemeal fashion and often involve different departments. CSSA, for example, only caters to financial needs, but does not cover outside-school activities. Some extracurricular programmes are subsidised by the Education Bureau and a Jockey Club fund, but money is paid directly to schools that run them, instead of to parents. There is a need for a more integrated and flexible funding approach, such as directly reimbursing parents so they can have more choices besides those offered by schools. Subsidising private tutorials to cover school work should also be considered.
There is a direct dental subsidy for the elderly and disabled, but not children. Some health care and counselling is available at public and government-aided schools. A comprehensive programme, including subsidies for health and dental treatment, should be considered for children, at least during the primary years. Healthy children will cost the medical system less in the long run. We must not encourage welfare dependency. But every effort should be made to better the position of less-privileged children. They are our future.