• Fri
  • Dec 26, 2014
  • Updated: 11:42am
My Take
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 December, 2013, 5:18am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 December, 2013, 5:18am

Can we ever get rid of poverty?

We can never eliminate poverty, says Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

The chief secretary made the statement, for which she was heavily criticised in the legislature, back in late October.

Nonsense, counters Chong Chan-yau, the social activist and president of the Hong Kong Blind Union.

Speaking at a poverty forum organised by the South China Morning Post, Chong said yesterday Lam is wrong in principle and may be using it as an excuse to avoid committing adequate public resources to tackle poverty. It is simply the wrong mindset, he said.

Logically, I agree with Lam. How can you eliminate poverty, crime or sickness in society? But Chong always has the intellectual force and facts at his command so I hesitate to disagree with him.

The way the government has now drawn the poverty line - those earning less than half of median monthly household income - is comparative. So it's almost by definition you will always have someone below it.

The new poverty line equates to HK$3,600 for a single worker and HK$11,500 for a family of three. After discounting existing benefits paid in cash, some 403,000 households, or 15.2 per cent of the population, are classified as poor.

Can Chong seriously think we can eliminate poverty in an absolute way? Is it possible to raise all 403,000 households above the poverty line? Perhaps the line itself, the product of statistics and conventions, is itself meaningless. Leo Goodstadt, the economist and a panellist at the forum, has previously argued the poverty line is useless, or worse.

It says nothing about a poverty alleviation target, to which Lam has absolutely refused to commit the government and its resources.

Perhaps what Chong means is that you need to believe it is possible to eliminate poverty. It's only in this way that people would be committed to make a difference. By declaring the battle cannot be won from the outset, the government is just being self-defeating. How can officials be committed if they assume the cause is lost from the start? Perhaps that's still too charitable.

By setting a poverty line, the administration of Leung Chun-ying gives the appearance of doing something when really nothing much has changed.


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One needs to distinguish between being poor and living in poverty. Poor is a relative term and in comparison to LKS, we are all (extremely) poor. We can't eliminate being poor in a relative sense. What we can and must eliminate is poverty where people live in cage homes and subsist on what they can scavenge from waste bins.
Hong Kong has the resources to eliminate poverty but the govt prefers to waste billions on needless infrastructure projects. We get dire forecasts of deficits year after year when the reality is an embarrassing surplus every time. The budget numbers are cooked to escape pressure to implement longer term spending programs to address systemic issues like poverty.
An idea that has been kicking around for some time in the West and is starting to gain traction again in some circles is to simply give people money in the form of a basic living allowance. A negative income tax if you will. Combine this with a realistic minimum wage (try living on $30 an hour) and the standard of living would improve immensely for those at the lower income levels.
John Adams
Free hand-outs to those who can and should work will never succeed.
(But raising the minimum wage while cutting immigrant workers will work)
Even the UK is now considering to cut unemployment benefits for those who refuse the interim jobs they are offered by the government - like sweeping roads, cleaning public toilets etc.
But assisting the elderly who have given of their best over their long and difficult lives here in HK - that is an entirely different matter. In this our government behaves in the most miserly and despicable way imaginable , all the more so given our enormous reserves and wasteful infrastructure spending .
Singapore does not have elderly people forced to scavenge rubbish bins for tins to sell in order to stay alive. And S'Pore does not have caged dwellers and people forced to live in converted factory buildings.
It is important to stop looking at support for a minimum level of living as a "free hand out". A key role of govt. is acting as a safety net for those who are unable to participate in an economy to be self sufficient. Will there be people taking advantage of this? Of course but I can accept this as part of a system where the vast majority of those being helped are truly deserving.
I would also refrain from holding up the UK as an example of fiscal responsibility. The UK and Europe in general have shown that cutting govt spending in the midst of a recession only exacerbates the downturn and delays a recovery. One of the most effective forms of poverty relief is unemployment benefits as the money goes right back into the economy while enabling survival for the recipients. This is particularly true for long term recessions where middle aged workers could find it impossible to return to their chosen occupations after experiencing long term unemployment. Unemployment benefits combined with retraining and placement assistance is an appropriate use of govt. funds.
Hong Kong always has poverty of a kind uncared by the society except by a small handful of social workers and those only timely drive for relief in cold winter days, Hong Kong society accepted poverty unlike other cities and societies which view poverty as a challenge that must be reduced or even eradicate. We accept cage living for an uncounted number of decades and too we are oblivion as if not seeing elderly collecting and pushing carts full of discarded cardboards so a living can be made. The prolonged existence of poverty in Hong Kong is a collective attitude of the entire society. The deepest root of such attitude I believe is one of the refugee culture whom most of us in Hong Kong are.
There is a justification for from rag to riches society to view who is poor being unlike themselves who just haven’t work hard enough. Unfortunately, as Alex Lo pointed out the day that children can be economically better than their parents no longer can be seen. The refugee attitude refuses to even sense that.
The refugee attitude of self reliance must be examined. Overturning poverty is a collective effort. It will facilitate elimination of poverty easier if we acknowledge our shortcomings that have made us hardwired and refuse to do anything about poverty around us. Paying unlivable wages seems has plenty of support so far in Hong Kong.
To ***....
It is exactly the mentality of the refugee culture that you have fully described and examined by asking, " what’s wrong?" In essence individual is expected to be deadly (cut throat) competitive and self-centered 自己顧自己. In the 60s, the 自己顧自己 was a common expression that deeply wrought our view about ourselves and others (and I would also add sometimes it was a point of derision of people who were). It is counter productive for Hong Kong as a whole. By comparison with other cities or nation, Hong Kong is primitive and may be hopeless to dislodge its refugee culture.
Chief Secretary, what do you mean by "we can never eliminate poverty"? Please don't use this jargon as an excuse because your authority apparently fails to do something about it - to do something in humanity to help the "poverty" sufferers with solid action and not words. In your role, you have power to introduce ideas, action and even laws, and such jargon talking from a person in your position is not a welcoming statement. Nobody is asking you to eliminate poverty, but surely in your capacity, you can initiate ideas/action to implement ways to tackle poverty in Hong Kong, this world class society we claimed.
This negative income tax as far as using tax money to provide welfare for the poor to augment the poor’s income has been implemented in NYC for sometime. Society at large except for the Tea Party in Boston, little negative sentiment has been the case. In NYC, homeless (a life style for some) are being helped by volunteers and religion groups with food kitchens and basement shelters. The rich and poor coexist in much a egalitarian way.
I foresee one day this negative income tax may extend to a wider population with higher payouts that include going shopping in popular department stores. This will happen when there is surplus of manpower ever more displacing by technology. The robbing of the wealthy (the working class) to help the poor is keeping not only the poor happy but the rich as well. Streets empty of signs of prosperity is not a happy scene and city for all.
Any of Tea Party type can hardly gain traction when future is even more transformed by forces that traditional means can’t harness.
There is nothing wrong with a refugee attitude if it promotes survival of the fittest. It was in fact the wave of refugee migrants in the 1960s and 1970s that eventually led to HK economic success. Many of the local tycoons today were also refugees who came to HK after 1949. As they say, "if you can't stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen". Likewise if people think they cannot make it in HK then they are always free to move abroad and seek to live in a welfare state.
Perhaps the reason why HK is no longer as competitive as it used to be is because we no longer have that "survival for the fittest" mindset. People have started to take things for granted and they have to be reminded that respect is earned not "deserved".
To ***....
Respect is earned. If there isn’t a chance to earn it, how do you expect to get respect from you or anyone?
Now let me say you haven’t read the comments here including mine to balance your refugee culture mindset any a bit. You and your type unfortunately are acting like a frog sitting at the bottom of a well can’t see too far and too wide. Many of social changes outside of Hong Kong have had already a long history. I am sure if you have followed what makes New York City a great city, you will not find so comfort to argue that “survival for the fittest” is the means to be competitive in this world.
More to the point it is precisely that Hong Kong is falling behind even comparing with mainland because of its love of “survival for the fittest” notion that epitomizes the refugee culture with predatory practice and thinking. The “survival for the fittest” is embarrassing for its primitiveness’ for a world city.




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