Fruit money for all worth the price

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2012, 3:14am

Our social welfare system, especially for the elderly poor, is bureaucratic, mean and insufficient for a decent living. That is why activists and many political parties across the ideological spectrum are calling for what amounts to a doubling of so-called fruit money for those over the age of 70 by scrapping a proposed means test for the new subsidy. To cut a long story short, they are right. If the activists win the fight, a recipient will get the new HK$2,200 subsidy, instead of the current HK$1,090 fruit money, regardless of his assets and income.

No, the government counters, because we can't afford to waste public money on elderly people who are not poor.

On the face of it, officials have a point. There is no reason to give HK$2,200 to someone like Li Ka-shing every month when he already qualifies for the current HK$1,090 fruit money. Those elderly people who qualify for fruit money are not on CSSA or social welfare payments. In theory, they are not so poor as to be on the dole. Those who are really dirt poor will not receive fruit money; instead they rely on welfare payments and other benefits, which usually add up to multiples of the standard fruit money each month.

But the reality is very different. Our welfare system is not efficient, and many elderly poor prefer not to go on welfare. This means a large number of old people in Hong Kong rely on fruit money to get by. The new subsidy with a means test will cost the public HK$6.2 billion in its first year of introduction, benefiting about 400,000 elderly people. It will cost HK$9.9 billion and HK$13.6 billion in the first year if we scrap the means tests for those aged 70 or above and those aged 65 or above, respectively. But that will go up as our population ages.

The government is focusing on the new subsidy and worries about uncontrolled costs if they do away with means tests. Welfare activists are looking at the mean welfare system and will use every opportunity to demand more for the poor, even if that means some "leakage" to the undeserving well-off who don't need the money.

In an ideal world, we would revamp our welfare system. But that's not on the table. That's why activists are fighting to get the new subsidy into the pockets of as many elderly people as possible. The government should listen.