Hong Kong's working poor are in need of more than cash relief
The plight of the working poor should be a focus of future relief, experts tell Elaine Yau andAndrea Chen in the second of a four-part series on poverty
While mainland residents, worried about tainted Chinese-made drugs, flock to Hong Kong in search of safer supplies, local retiree Yeung Chun-loi travels in the opposite direction to buy cheap medicine for his hypertension and Parkinson's disease.
Brushing aside concerns about the safety of mainland drugs, the 69-year-old former handbag maker says he has no choice: "You can only afford to think about safety if you have money."
In Shenzhen, medicines to control his blood pressure cost only several yuan each month, compared to the hundreds of dollars he would have to pay here.
Yeung and his wife, 38, have a young daughter, and the family lives on the HK$8,500 that she earns each month as a saleswoman, along with his HK$2,200 old-age living allowance.
Their combined monthly income of HK$10,700 puts them below the poverty line, now set at HK$11,500 for a three-person household. Even so, the family isn't on welfare assistance: Yeung believes receiving government handouts would set a poor example for their seven-year-old child.
"My wife can still work. I want my daughter to know the importance of self-reliance," he says.
However, this pride comes at a cost.
"My daughter wants to buy toys and learn ice skating, but it's impossible. We have to be extremely frugal," says Yeung, who scrimps by eating lunch at a community kitchen run by St James' Settlement charity.
"We live in a rundown flat on the fourth floor, which is subdivided into seven units. The living conditions are very poor. Having weak legs, it's exhausting for me to climb four flights of stairs as there's no lift."
The Yeungs are among the city's working poor - people who hold jobs but, nonetheless, are unable to earn a living wage.
Based on the official poverty line, set for the first time in October, government figures show there are 157,000 households (about 537,000 people) classified as the working poor. Only 8.4 per cent of this group receives Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA).
Of the 143,000 households that don't receive assistance, 84 per cent are made up of at least three people. That works out to an average of 1.1 person with a job in each household, which means one person is supporting three to four people.
Academics and NGOs argue that this group should be a major government priority when introducing relief measures following the establishment of an official poverty line. The level is set at half the median household income in 2012, which works out to HK$3,600 per month for one person and HK$14,300 for a four-person household.
As might be expected, several groups have called for some form of cash relief for the working poor.
The Hong Kong Council of Social Service, for example, proposes giving a supplement of 10 per cent of the median income for equivalent households. This scheme, it estimates, will cost about HK$4.8 billion annually and reduce the population of working poor by 190,000.
"The low-income supplement can encourage those who earn little to stay at their jobs. Britain adopted [a similar] subsidy scheme," says Christine Fang Meng-sang, the council's outgoing chief.
Beyond such relief, Fang argues that the government should improve access to public services to help the working poor.
"What the poor need is not only cash, but also access to public services like medical care [and housing]," she says. "They cannot afford such services at market price. But Hong Kong is suffering from inadequacy of public services. I suggest the government conduct a deprivation study, to learn what [services] the poor are deprived of. A [poverty line] based on income only shows one side of the picture as their basic needs and [what public services they lack] are not taken into consideration."
Josephine Lee Yuk-chi, deputy executive officer of St James' Settlement, says a shortage of nursery services also prevents many women from taking work to boost family income.
The Social Welfare Department says there are around 29,000 subsidised places in nurseries and care centres - a mere drop in the ocean compared the estimated more than 800,000 children below 15 years old who require supervision during the day.
"The demand for our playgroups and tutorial and care sessions far outstrips demand. Many mothers want to work to support their children but are forced to stay home," Lee says.
Although not eager for handouts, former bag maker Yeung says a shorter queue for treatment at public hospitals and for public housing would make life a lot less difficult for his family.
"We applied for public housing in 2010, but we are still waiting. The HK$4,000 rent that we pay [for a 100 sq ft subdivided flat] is a big burden."
Medical care also eats up a big chunk of the Yeung family income. People on CSSA can receive free treatment at public hospitals and senior citizens aged 70 and above get five HK$50 medical vouchers annually, but Yeung is not eligible for any of that.
"My ear, eyes, joints are bad. I can't afford the HK$100 fee to see a specialist at a government hospital. I have waited two years [to consult a public doctor] but my appointment to treat my Parkinson's disease isn't due until October next year," he says.
"I never consult a private doctor. But I won't stint on medical care for my daughter. We take her to see a private doctor whenever she's sick, although each visit costs around HK$300."
Because the drugs to control Yeung's high blood pressure are not on the government register for free medicines, it would cost about HK$700 per month to buy them even from a public hospital. That is beyond his means, so he goes to the mainland to buy cheap alternatives.
Stephen Fisher, the director general of Oxfam Hong Kong, reckons poor working families with children deserve the most help.
"[It's about] social justice. They are working, suffering and not getting social assistance. They should be given some breathing room. [Some] work for 12 hours per day. But because their salaries are low, and they have a number of people to support, the income is not enough for the whole family. Helping them can also prevent more people from relying on social security," says Fisher, who also sits on the Commission on Poverty.
These working poor are not on assistance and have virtually no savings. So if they suffer a setback, if the bread-winner falls ill and can't work, for example, they will be forced to rely on social welfare. "Once they get used to receiving social security, it will be very hard for them to get back on their own feet," Fisher says.
He proposes giving cash subsidies to poor families with at least one member who works full time and children below 18 years of age.
Social scientist Dr Law Chi-kwong says long term anti-poverty measures should focus on improving social services rather than giving cash relief.
"The indicators for the poverty line are all cash-related. When people talk about the poverty line, most focus on the impact of government intervention [through] cash transfers instead of other forms of help like health, education and housing services. I'm not saying cash relief isn't useful but it should not be the only thing we are doing," says Law, a professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong,
"In the short-term, giving people money definitely eases their financial burden. But in the long run, it's always employment, education and better social capital that can help people live a better life."
Liu Lung, a masseur, couldn't agree more. It's not cash subsidies but better childcare that can help his family escape the poverty trap, he says, because it will allow he and his wife to take on full-time jobs.
The couple gets by on a combined income of HK$13,000 from part-time work. As they have two young sons, aged 11 and six, Liu and his wife feel they can't work full time and adequately care for the boys.
"My wife is a part-time saleswoman. We take time off work in turn to pick them up from school. This year, both our sons began attending tutorial and day care groups run by St James' Settlement at their schools between 5pm and 9pm every weekday. I am really glad there are such services available. But we still cannot take full-time jobs because school hours are not fixed. Often, when their school conducts special activities such as teacher development day or exams, school finishes at noon. One parent has to be there for them on such days," Liu says.
Instead of cash, Liu hopes the government can help his children by offering them the exposure and experiences that more well-off youngsters have access to.
"My sons are not participating in any interest classes [such as art or music]; this might put them at a disadvantage to other children when they advance to secondary school. I just hope that they can join some interest classes for free. Giving cash subsidies to families like ours is not a good idea because you never know whether the parents will really spend on the children."