Increasing childcare subsidies could help future generations excel

Karen Yiu suggests that Hong Kong should follow Singapore's example by significantly increasing childcare subsidies to help upgrade the lives and work skills of future generations

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 3:00am

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah warned in his budget speech about the challenges Hong Kong faces because of a shrinking labour force and an ageing population. Officials say this pattern will produce an unsustainable economic burden on those of working age. If so, this is a threat to our social development.

Some commentators see this purely in terms of numbers, with, for example, two workers supporting each retiree. One possible solution, obviously, is to convince families to have more children. But we have to ask how realistic that is.

Our housing is mostly too cramped and expensive for many young families to consider having more than two children. And public opinion does not seem to support greater immigration - which would anyway run into the same problem of inadequate housing.

One solution is not to focus on the numbers but to concentrate on the productive capacity of future generations - the human capital. This does not simply mean sending more of our young people to study for a university degree; it means systematically upgrading the whole of the next generation's ability to learn and think by introducing universal pre-school services.

Professionals recognise that the early years of a child's life are particularly critical in affecting a range of outcomes throughout the course of their life, and children develop at the fastest rate before the age of six. There are sound reasons, therefore, for the government to devote more resources to expanding and improving the quality of childcare support available to the whole population, including the grass roots.

Singapore recently announced, in its budget, the provision of childcare subsidies to parents whose children are aged between two months and six years. The subsidies depend on various factors, but each working mother employed for a minimum of 56 hours a month is entitled to a monthly subsidy of up to S$600 (HK$3,725) towards whole-day infant care. Those in the bottom 20 per cent of households pay only about S$10 a month for childcare.

These measures - Singapore is doubling expenditure on the pre-school sector over five years - are designed primarily to encourage parents to have more children. But it is easy to see how they will also upgrade the life and work skills of future generations, enabling young people to have more fulfilling lives and increasing their productivity at a time when the population is ageing. In other words, it is exactly the sort of thing that the Hong Kong government should be doing.

Instead, Hong Kong's latest budget includes no new initiatives or additional resources for pre-school education and childcare. Our Pre-Primary Education Voucher Scheme provides only HK$1,400 each month for parents to purchase education and childcare. Yet the monthly cost of these services ranges from HK$1,500 to HK$8,600 for half days, and from HK$2,700 to HK$9,800 for a full-day service for children aged above two years and eight months.

Last year, the Hong Kong Council of Social Service and the Council of Non-Profit-Making Organisations for Pre-Primary Education conducted research on the development of pre-school children. More than 2,000 parents with children aged three to six, and the kindergarten teachers of those children, were polled.

The survey found that even well-off or resourceful parents do not have much idea about how to help their children develop fully. In addition, children from families with an unstable income, or with less educated, divorced or deceased parents, tend to have more behavioural problems in kindergarten and at home.

Yet, more than 50 per cent of the parents interviewed receive little support from professionals about successful parenting. Families from both the middle class and the grass roots are crying out for more childcare support.

Investing in early childhood is the best investment a society can make for its overall long-term well-being. It is normal in successful, developed countries to have universal access to nursery and pre-school facilities. It gives all children a chance to make the most of their capacity later in their education.

Unlike salaries tax allowances for dependent children, the benefits go to the less well-off as well as the rich. It boosts the abilities of the next generation, thus reducing the cost of sorting out economic and social ills such as underemployment and crime. It might even encourage some parents to have an extra child. And it will help ease the burden as the ratio of retirees to workers continues to rise.

Karen Yiu Kit-ling is chief officer (children & youth) at The Hong Kong Council of Social Service