Reform of CSSA welfare payments urged to bring people out of poverty

Critics say CSSA system is outdated and offers those in poverty too little

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 October, 2013, 12:04pm

After setting Hong Kong's first poverty line, the government is under renewed pressure to reform the social security net, which critics say is outdated.

About 235,600 people receiving the Comprehensive Social Security Allowance (CSSA) live below the poverty line, meaning they cannot afford a basic living.

Last month the government announced that 1.31 million Hongkongers live below the poverty line, triggering calls for more concrete measures to lift them out of poverty. But officials insisted that the line would not be directly pegged to either the allowance or the minimum wage.

While officials have pledged to take a serious look at the feasibility of offering a low-income subsidy to those eligible to ease poverty, it is understood the government may also mull an overhaul of the social security net.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the government had identified several areas within the CSSA system that needed serious examination and it would look at what measures to put in place over the next few months.

"Most of these areas are related to students and children," Lam said on ATV's Newsline programme yesterday. She dismissed the suggestion that CSSA benefits were too low, saying the system was based on the concept of providing basic needs.

Professor Wong Hung, from the department of social work at Chinese University, said the CSSA system was not just outdated but that there needed to be a scientific approach in setting out basic living needs.

The last official study of basic needs to identify a list of items deemed necessary for daily living, and their prices, and on which allowance payments are based, was conducted in 1996, Wong said.

Wong and the Hong Kong Council of Social Service jointly conducted another basic living needs study in 2006, but the government ignored it, he said.

"As the government said that the statutory minimum wage and CSSA would both not be pegged to the poverty line, there needs to be a standard ... a more scientific way to base those levels on.

"It's obvious that the system is very outdated."

Other suggestions include allowing disabled people or those with long-term illnesses to be considered eligible as individuals, given that all CSSA standards are currently based on household size and income.

Another idea is to abolish what is called in Cantonese the "bad child paper" - a letter grown children sign for their elderly parents declaring they cannot support them. This is required for an elderly person to receive CSSA.

"CSSA is the last resort, so we don't want to negatively label it, but we need to remove the stigma surrounding it. Welfare should be a citizen right," said Stephen Fisher, director general of Oxfam Hong Kong.

Additional reporting by Phila Siu