Rethink needed on welfare policy
Hong Kong has never considered itself to be a 'welfare society', despite the provision of public housing, cheap medical care, and a range of benefits for people in need. This has much to do with our city's reputation as a freewheeling centre of capitalism and a place where people make their own way in the world. But as people's expectations have risen, so has the pressure on the government to do more. A minimum-wage bill has been passed and welfare budgets expanded. The wealth gap, however, remains a major concern and the change of chief executive this year has opened a window for more demands to be made.
The spotlight has turned to our chief executive hopefuls, who are under pressure to provide better policies to help people in need, promote self-reliance rather than dependence, and create a truly caring society.
This is not easy, especially as the community has come to expect handouts such as the HK$6,000 payment announced last year under strong public pressure. And the handsome budget surpluses in recent years have made bonus welfare payments and rent waivers the norm rather than the exception. The philosophy of self-reliance and a safety net for those in real need has given way to a more populist approach to welfare. The rise of powerful trade unions and politicians standing for grass-roots interests has added to the pressure. Chief executive election front runner Leung Chun-ying has proposed bigger cash handouts for elderly people who pass a means test, despite the financial burden that may cause in a rapidly ageing society like Hong Kong.
The candidates' platform on welfare remains patchy so far. But Leung and his rival Henry Tang Ying-yen appear to be well aware of the threat to social stability if issues like income inequality and the lack of upward mobility are not tackled. Leung suggested restoring the commission on poverty led by Tang, apparently targeting the perceived failings of that commission.
Tang, meanwhile, proposed two new commissions, to take better care of the needs of middle-class people and to help those on low incomes climb the social ladder. Exactly how effective it would be remains to be seen. But in order to succeed these commissions would have to be more than mere talking shops. New thinking is required.
hanks to more generous recurrent public welfare spending, up from an annual HK$19.5 billion in 1997 to HK$42 billion this year, the range of social services and subsidies for the needy have been increased. As society becomes more affluent, people deserve better care and benefits. But public money should be well spent. Instead of promising higher payments or wider services, there is a strong case for a critical review of our decades-old welfare policy.