For far too long, poverty and the widening wealth gap have been neglected in our dominant political discourse. But since the global financial crisis, more and more local voices have been heard speaking up for the most vulnerable in our society. The South China Morning Post organised a poverty forum yesterday as part of this effort to raise awareness and address policy alternatives.
If there is a consensus, it is that poverty, in the words of leading economist and forum panellist Francis Lui Ting-ming, is a multi-faceted problem that requires a multi-pronged approach with a package of policies. No one group or sector of society can do it alone.
The post-handover government, inheriting the anti-welfare bias of the colonial administration, played down the problem. Yet in the past decade, the situation for the poor, elderly and disabled has barely improved. Wages stayed constant for most low-income groups. This was despite the introduction of the minimum wage. To the credit of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, his young administration has introduced a poverty line for Hong Kong. Experts may debate its usefulness and accuracy, but its establishment has forced such discussions into mainstream political debate and put pressure on officials to tackle the issue. This is part of the Leung government's wider strategy to provide more welfare services for the elderly and the poor and release more public land to provide public housing and shorten the waiting list for flats. These are a good start but they are not enough. There has to be equality in education, not only for children of families at different income levels but for ethnic minorities, argues co-panellist Fermi Wong Wai-fun, the head of minority rights group Unison.
There needs to be greater social mobility and hope for young people. The government, business community, political parties and individuals must join hands to fight poverty and make Hong Kong a more humane and a better place.