Leung Chun-ying appointed a task force to prepare for the revival of the Commission on Poverty even before he became chief executive. Since then the issue has been getting the attention it deserves, free of the distractions of controversy that have dogged this administration during its first 100 days like no other since the handover. The group says the city will define a poverty line that will help shape policy for recognising and alleviating the plight of low earners and welfare recipients. Officials now acknowledge what has been obvious for a long time: that the material benefit of economic growth has not filtered down through society equitably. The poor and less-well-off have missed out.
It was the flawed assumption that economic growth would benefit every level of society that led Leung's predecessor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, to scrap the poverty commission. Tsang has since admitted this idea was wrong. Piecemeal government relief measures failed to make lasting amends. Officials did not address the vexing question of a poverty line, or irreconcilable differences between official estimates of the number of Hongkongers living in poverty and those of non-government organisations.
Task force member and NGO representative Ho Hei-wah says the administration acknowledges the need to set benchmarks to define poverty based on international standards. The commission's priority, however, should be to investigate the true extent of poverty in Hong Kong so there can be informed public debate on whether a poverty line is necessary.
Leung has said the issue is to lift the incomes of the poor through welfare services. Such thinking will raise old fears of welfarism and spark calls for a revival of the self-reliance and hard work on which the city's success has been built. There is still a place for these values. But a wealthy, advanced society is also judged by its policies for the poor and disadvantaged and equal opportunity.
The Tsang administration did introduce the important anti-poverty measure of a minimum wage, which will give the commission more room to support enhanced social security without destroying the incentive to work.
A poverty line would just be a starting line for addressing growing income disparity that has spread to a growing middle underclass not poor enough to qualify for help.