Governments need facts and figures to do the job of governing properly. Hong Kong's lack of an officially recognised poverty line has meant that the poor are prone to fall through cracks in our welfare system. One of our most respected NGOs, the Council of Social Service, contends that one in three elderly people are now needy, putting the number for the first time over 300,000. The figures are shocking for a city so wealthy, but in the absence of official recognition, they are little more than a disturbing statistic.
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung's recent announcement that a poverty line would be defined by the end of the year is understandably welcome. Following Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's pledge to alleviate poverty and with the means-tested old-age allowance of HK$2,200 taking effect in April, the plight of the poor is finally getting proper attention. But determining what constitutes poverty amid so much affluence is no simple matter. The utmost care has to be taken to ensure that the threshold is set at a realistic and effective level.
Government estimates of how many people are needy have always been dramatically different from those produced by NGOs. The council's latest figures, based on the poverty line being half of median household income, puts the number at 1.18 million, up 30,000 from 2011. Authorities have previously indicated that perhaps one in nine of Hong Kong's 7.1 million people lives below the breadline, a number several hundred thousand lower. Whatever the real level, it is clear that our economic system is leaving far too many people behind.
We are surrounded by the evidence. Elderly people sifting through garbage for ways to make income, security guards far beyond the retirement age at their posts and parks full of the aged sitting forlornly. A developed city like ours, with so many resources at its disposal, has a moral and economic obligation to help the poor. Leung has recognised past failings and rightly decided to chart a new course.
Previous administrations have been reticent about setting a poverty line for fear it will open the door to welfarism. Ensuring an adequate social security net, while respecting the self-reliance on which Hong Kong was founded and has prospered, will be challenging. Setting a threshold is only the starting point, though. Only after it has been determined can the real work of helping the elderly and poor begin.