Working poor miss out on budget help
John Tsang Chun-wah may be congratulating himself on having delivered a budget which is the envy of finance ministers the world over. He dished out goodies worth HK$80 billion to appease an ever-demanding community, while keeping a robust reserve of more than HK$660 billion to weather the economic storm ahead. But the outgoing financial secretary would be wrong to think his swansong budget will make him one of the most popular in history. As soon as the applause died down, there was an outcry from those who found they'd missed out in the giveaway budget.
This is not the first time Tsang has been criticised for neglecting the so-called 'N-nothing' class. They are the ones who are not entitled to tax rebates or bonus welfare payments, mainly because their wages are too low to fall into the tax net but they choose to work for a small pay packet rather than lining up for the dole. They are also not entitled to public housing rent waivers because they are still in the queue for a flat and live in a subdivided private flat. They may not even benefit from the electricity subsidy because it goes directly to the landlord. They are left with nothing.
Hong Kong prides itself on being a caring society. The social security system is supposed to help those in genuine need. The plight of the 'N-nothings' underlines the inadequacies in the existing safety net. It is disappointing that the finance chief has rejected their calls for help. He brushed aside suggestions the government subsidise the rent of those on the public housing waiting list, saying it would distort the rental market and lengthen the queue.
There is nothing wrong with relieving the burden of the middle class and those who are already covered in the social welfare system. But it would be a shame if the government just turned a blind eye to those who slipped through the safety net while sitting on multibillion-dollar fiscal reserves.
Identifying who to help is the first step. The government has never conducted any studies of this underprivileged class. That makes assistance difficult, even when officials are ready to help. There is a need for thorough research. Who are they? Why are they left out and what are their genuine needs? They are all crucial to an effective strategy to bring them back to the safety net.
Fortunately, there is no need to start from scratch. The HK$10 billion Community Care Fund was launched by the chief executive in 2010, with a view to supplementing what may be left out in the existing network of services. Since then, the fund has offered special grants to specific groups, such as a one-off denture allowance for the elderly and subsidies to help residents of subdivided flats move out. It is imperative for the government to critically review the fund's effectiveness and consider turning the worthy initiatives to permanent assistance.