Poverty commission must make most vulnerable their priority

Stephen Fisher says Hong Kong must address the structural causes of poverty, and identifies five key groups that will require particular attention from the new Commission on Poverty

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 2:21am

The preparatory task force for a Commission on Poverty has been working since July on the terms of reference and composition of the revived commission. Oxfam Hong Kong hopes the new commission will study the real causes of poverty and propose measures that will meet the needs of the poor.

Much of the poverty in Hong Kong has deep-rooted causes and alleviating it requires economic, social and structural changes. In the past, the government tended to implement one-off measures or short-term projects to deal with the problem. However, such initiatives do not always have a long-term impact.

In tackling the underlying causes of poverty, the following five areas should be the commission's main priorities: elderly poverty, in-work poverty, women in poverty, intergenerational poverty and ethnic-minority poverty.

In Hong Kong, poverty is a hazard of old age: more than 40 per cent of recipients under the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) scheme are elderly. The reason for this is that we have no viable and sustainable retirement protection scheme. The Mandatory Provident Fund scheme is meant to be a form of retirement protection, but it does not cover everyone and is inadequate. The new old-age living allowance is a step in the right direction, but it can only be an interim measure.

To really tackle the problem, we need a financially sustainable retirement protection scheme that covers everyone, including homemakers. For such a scheme to be sustainable, it should be contributory. The government, employers and employees, and the self-employed should all contribute to a common pool, and everyone should receive a pension when they retire after reaching a certain age.

The scheme should be redistributive - that is, there should be some transfer of income from the rich to the poor and from the young to the old. Any such scheme is likely to be complicated and controversial. The new commission should study this problem as a matter of priority and come up with a firm recommendation.

Second, in-work poverty remains a serious problem. Wages in Hong Kong can be so low that many working people, even with full-time jobs, cannot support their families on their income alone and must rely on welfare to make up the shortfall. Our view is that someone in full-time employment should not be forced to apply for CSSA and suffer the stigma attached to it. Some form of a low-income family supplement should be provided to enable working families to maintain a minimum standard of living. Once people become dependent on CSSA, it is difficult for them to be self-reliant. The commission should look at the problem of the working poor and recommend measures to supplement their income to allow them to stay out of the social security safety net.

Third, we should help women in poverty. Women in poverty far outnumber men. Poverty alleviation should really start with women's rights. The feminisation of poverty is now a growing phenomenon. Women are often pushed into poverty by a life event such as the death of a spouse or a divorce. They often find it hard to re-enter the job market.

The commission should investigate the root causes of women's poverty and recommend programmes to help them find work. Retraining and childcare facilities are essential elements of any such initiatives.

Fourth, we can do more to address intergenerational poverty. We all want the best for our children, but some parents are able to do more for their children than others. Children born into poor families often do not have an equal chance to move ahead in society. A fair society should ensure that all children have the opportunity to achieve their potential. The commission should look at ways to improve the life chances of children from disadvantaged families.

If nothing is done, we will see increasing intergenerational poverty. We now see young people coming from CSSA families applying for CSSA themselves. Tragically, they often have no dreams or aspirations. We should give all children a chance to move up in this world. The commission should put this issue high on its agenda.

Finally, the problem of ethnic-minority poverty in Hong Kong is becoming apparent. Although many members of our minority communities were born and educated in Hong Kong, they have failed to move out of poverty. Because of their inadequate Chinese, they often have to work on construction sites and in Western-style bars and restaurants. The root problem is education. Our education system has failed them and let them pass through our schools without learning Chinese.

These non-Chinese children are Hong Kong's children too. They deserve the same care and respect as Chinese children. The new commission should look at ways to enable ethnic-minority children to attend Chinese-as-a-second-language classes in mainstream schools to give them an effective head start.

Civil society organisations have very high hopes for the new commission. It should deal with the main issues first, and not wrangle over things like definitions and indicators of poverty. The commission should examine the real causes of poverty and come up with concrete proposals to tackle this injustice in a society as affluent as Hong Kong.

Stephen Fisher is director general of Oxfam Hong Kong