How to break the cycle of child poverty in Hong Kong, where one in five children are poor
Chenhong Peng and Paul Yip say ensuring all children have an equal chance of formal education is important but not enough. Increasingly, resources must be focused on helping disadvantaged children develop soft skills such as resilience and confidence
Children who grow up in low-income households tend to have less access to opportunities and therefore are more likely to remain poor in adulthood. The fact that poverty often crosses generational lines makes the problem much harder to tackle.
According to the Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report, there were some 180,000 children (aged below 18) living in poverty in 2015. The child poverty rate was 18 per cent, which meant that nearly every one in five children were living in poverty. Compared with other developed economies, the child poverty rate in Hong Kong is relatively high. It stands at 3.7 per cent in Denmark, 9.8 per cent in Britain, 15.1 per cent in Australia and 21.2 per cent in the US.
Child poverty is a serious concern not only because of its immediate impact on a child’s well-being, but also because of what it means for the child’s future. Hence, providing support to parents so that they can find work will not only give a lift to the children immediately, but it is also very effective in tackling intergenerational poverty.
This is because when parents can afford it, they invest in their children through formal schooling, home learning and extracurricular activities. Such investments are later rewarded in the labour market when the child gets a well-paying job.
A recent study conducted in Hong Kong highlights the importance of formal education, finding it a major factor accounting for whether income levels persist from parent to child. At the same time, parenting style and a child’s participation in extracurricular activities also playsignificant roles.
Formal education has long been regarded as the key mechanism for lifting a family out of poverty. The government has implemented various policies to equalise opportunities in formal schooling. This includes providing financial assistance, such as through a textbook assistance scheme.
Second, parenting style is vital in shaping a child’s development. In general, high-income parents have more resources to develop their children’s aspirations, motivations and attitudes, while families going through economic hardship are hard-pressed to provide similar care for their children. Research in Hong Kong has found that parents in poor families have fewer perceived good parenting qualities and more negative parenting characteristics. Parent-child conflict is also more likely in low-income families.
Third, having more resources also means high-income parents can afford to send their children to more extracurricular activities such as piano lessons, badminton classes and out-of-town summer camps. Low-income parents cannot afford most of these. Our study found that a higher proportion of a poor family’s limited income is spent on extracurricular activities or private tuition, compared with better-off families.
A trend in the labour market further penalises low-income families. While more traditional recruitment focuses on education qualifications and experience, today’s competency-based recruitment seeks candidates with not just good credentials but also desirable personality and social traits, such as leadership skills and self-confidence. This is especially the case for high-paying jobs.
Such traits are largely associated with a child’s exposure to extracurricular activities and a good home-learning environment. Many young people from low-income families fall short in the labour market because they lack such soft skills, and not because they lack potential or even the right educational credentials.
This is a problem Hong Kong must address, not least because our population is rapidly ageing. Hong Kong’s labour force is expected to peak at 3.71 million by 2018 and then decline to 3.51 million by 2035. To counter this decline, the city must raise its labour productivity. This requires more investment in human capital, particularly in our youth.
In order to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty, we should not only equalise the opportunities in formal education but also the opportunities in access to positive parenting at home and extracurricular activities. Already, a growing number of community programmes have been set up to try and enrich the life experience and developmental needs of children living in poverty.
For its part, the government established the Child Development Fund in 2008 with the aim to support the long-term development of children from poor families and alleviate intergenerational poverty. The fund supports projects operated by non-governmental organisations and schools seeking to encourage children to plan for their future, develop a savings habit and accumulate intangible assets such as positive attitudes, personal resilience and social networks.
NGOs here have also initiated community engagement programmes such as “Sunday School”, which offers workshops and activities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds that cover a wide range of topics, such as human development, environmental protection and drama. The Wharf-initiatied “Project WeCan”, which aims to empower disadvantaged secondary students with learning opportunities, is another excellent example of how we can leverage philanthropy in the business sector to help enrich the experiences of youth who need additional help to realise their potential.
At present, these various services reach only a small proportion of children living in poverty. Thus, we must make even better use of our resources and volunteerism in the community to widen our outreach.
If we fail to provide timely support, the community as a whole will pay a high price for missing the opportunity to enhance our human capital to serve future needs, not to mention failing in our duty to do right by our children.
Chenhong Peng is a doctoral student and Paul Yip is chair professor in the Social Work and Social Administration Department at the University of Hong Kong