My Take

Level playing field will help the poor

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2013, 1:43am

Poverty is not just about social welfare. Such a welfare view provides at best a narrow perspective of the real battle. Yet, given the bureaucratic nature of the government, it's inevitable officials from the chief secretary downwards would think only of social welfare policies when it comes to addressing poverty, as Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor did in her op-ed in this paper yesterday.

Now, I don't want to diminish such efforts. Having seen it swept under the carpet by Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, the administration of Leung Chun-ying is making a start. If it succeeds, it will have at least lessened the burdens of poverty on the poor. This is nothing to sneer at, given the brutal conditions many of Hong Kong's poorest live in today. But, despite their selfish and self-serving agenda, pro-business politicians and lobbyists are not wrong in arguing that social welfare - whatever the sums we devote to it - can never solve the problem of poverty.

However, it is not that welfare encourages dependency and laziness, as those people usually claim, but because the other keys to lifting people out of poverty have been ignored: a fair share of economic growth and education opportunities. That's why we need a multi-agency approach involving the bureaus for commerce and economic development, transport and housing, and education - not just the social welfare department.

Tsang did not believe in welfare. Instead, he argued that only by growing the economic pie would everyone benefit, including the poor. He was not entirely wrong. But the problem is that the economic gains since the handover have disproportionately accrued to the plutocratic and professional classes. Their wages and earnings have jumped while those of lower-income earners have stayed flat or dropped.

They have also captured the elite and international schools, thereby ensuring the best education goes to their children. Our mandarins run government schools for the masses while sending their own children to study overseas or to privileged local schools with taxpayer subsidies. Unless we overhaul the education system and recapture our economy by creating a more level playing field, any poverty relief programme, however well-intentioned, is piecemeal and doomed to fail.