My Take

Can we ever get rid of poverty?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 December, 2013, 5:18am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 December, 2013, 5:18am

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.