Why must elderly poor wait longer while allowance is fine-tuned?

Alice Wu says it is plain wrong to withhold a miserly allowance from the elderly poor just so legislators can make a political point

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 12:53am


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Why, I ask, are we trying to hold off giving money - albeit a small amount and not nearly enough - to the elderly poor? The government's proposed Old Age Living Allowance that would give HK$2,200 a month to the elderly poor isn't perfect. Nothing in life is. And if we lived in an ideal world, there'd be no such word as "poverty".

Means testing may be "mean", but withholding money that is already available from those who really need it is just inhumane. This may be lost on our legislators caught up in their political posturing, but do any of them have a clue what it means to be poor?

It means struggling with basic needs. Having to go hungry and thirsty. Suffocating in the heat in summer, and freezing in winter. It means fighting to live, every day. It means thinking about the number of showers you can afford. It means having to choose between having a meal or visiting the doctor, or not having the luxury of thinking beyond the next meal.

But, the filth and squalor our elderly poor are forced to live in is nothing compared to the ugliness of the politics that transpired over the past weeks. Perched comfortably in their cushioned seats in the air-conditioned chamber of the Legislative Council, this city's politicians rode roughshod over the poor on their high horses.

Their poverty of logic was so stunning that it hurt to hear their argument. Why would giving money to all senior residents be a sensible prerequisite for giving to the elderly poor? Withholding money from those who absolutely and desperately need it, so those who wouldn't mind having a little bit more cash can have it too, makes no sense.

And the argument that those who don't need it won't take it is even more mind-boggling. If every person were good enough to only take what they need, then we wouldn't be in this mess in the first place. So are they fighting for the allowance to be given to these "angels" who they say won't take it?

What the government has proposed seems too little, not just in quantity but in the number of beneficiaries. Should the asset cap be raised? Absolutely. Should the elderly poor get more than just HK$2,200? Of course. And we should fight the government with whatever we've got to have those amounts raised. But we shouldn't be doing so at the expense of the most vulnerable.

These politicians are telling those with less than HK$186,000 to their name, who earn less than HK$6,600 a month, to wait. Wait, they say, until we have some sort of a universal pensions plan. Well, that's just rich.

It should be criminal to ask the most needy to wait - to skimp on more meals, to miss more doctor's appointments and to shiver in the cold a little longer - so legislators can revel in their showboating.

Ideals are great until they come face to face with harsh realities. Priorities must be given. The asset cap and income limit are set at levels lower than what we would like, but that is no reason to ask for the scrapping of the means test.

Two in every five elderly residents in Hong Kong live in poverty. We may never be able to eradicate poverty, but we've got to start somewhere.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA