700,000 slip through Hong Kong's welfare net

Welfare payments meant for neediest reach only 40 per cent of 1.15 million identified as living in poverty, exposing gaps in support system

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 2:04pm

About 700,000 people living in poverty in Hong Kong are slipping through the social welfare safety net.

According to welfare department figures, Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) - a payment for those who cannot support themselves financially - covers only 40 per cent of the 1.15 million identified as living in poverty by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, using 2011 census statistics.

The figures show the number of CSSA recipients remained constant at 450,000 to 460,000 per month in 2011.

The numbers expose the wide gaps in Hong Kong's "all or nothing" welfare system, where there are few other supplements apart from the CSSA, with only limited public housing and small subsidies for children's schooling.

"If they are not on the dole, there is next to nothing between the poor and the stone-cold hard floor," said Hong Kong Oxfam's director general, Stephen Fisher.

As Hong Kong does not have an official poverty line, the council deems it to be half the median household income, which amounts to HK$3,500 for one person and HK$13,250 for a household of four.

Experts say the city needs an official and internationally recognised poverty line to allow it to identify and quantify the poor, as well as expose holes in the social security and welfare system.

You have elderly people who have no income, but maybe own an old and decrepit property and this may keep them from receiving welfare, even though they are barely hanging on

They welcomed an announcement by the preparatory group for the Commission on Poverty that establishing a poverty line would be top of the new commission's agenda.

"A poverty threshold is a headline measure - it's an objective measurement based on income statistics," said Fisher. "It's a practical and straightforward way of identifying who is poor."

He said no government in the world liked having an official poverty line, because it monitored the growing or shrinking number of poor, and also gave the public, legislative bodies and the media hard facts to judge how effective a government's poverty-reduction measures were.

Chua Hoi-wai, policy advocacy and social enterprise business director for the Council of Social Service, said setting up a poverty line was one step towards Hong Kong becoming an international city in its attitudes to social security and welfare.

"The government, in the past, has sometimes used the CSSA as a de facto poverty line, which was not good," said Chua. He said this excluded many in dire situations who did not receive welfare.

There were many who qualified for CSSA, but for various reasons did not receive it, while there were also many who lived in very poor circumstances but did not meet the requirements, he said.

The social stigma surrounding welfare had also made many of the city's needy reluctant to apply.

This especially applies to Hong Kong's growing elderly, and also increasingly poor, population. The council identified 288,000 older people living in poverty, while government figures show that roughly 153,900 received the old-age CSSA.

"You have elderly people who have no income, but maybe own an old and decrepit property and this may keep them from receiving welfare, even though they are barely hanging on," Fisher said.

Others decline to receive welfare because of the stigma; to take welfare would mean their children could not take care of them.

Many old people resort to taking menial jobs, such as collecting cardboard, for just a few dollars and hopefully an extra meal.

Fisher said Hongkongers had a strong sense of dignity, hoping to support themselves in a city where it was increasingly hard to live, with soaring property prices and inflation.

"There needs to be a range of social safety nets before relying on long-term social welfare; like low income supplements, negative income tax and family allowances," said Fisher.

"We need to work against poverty - not just by giving money, but by helping poorer people from having to rely on permanent welfare. This is what it means to eradicate poverty."

Fisher said an official poverty line would serve as a good first guideline in providing a more comprehensive welfare system.