Large-scale poverty is now endemic in Hong Kong as the gap between rich and poor widens, with old people the hardest hit, according to one of the city's oldest and most respected NGOs.
The Hong Kong Council of Social Service, which has been tracking poverty in the city for 13 years, says the problem will get even more acute unless it is tackled with long-term plans. The council's latest six-monthly report shows that one in three elderly people are living below the poverty line. It is the first time the number of poor elderly has edged above the 300,000 mark, to 305,000.
"The numbers will only grow with our rapidly ageing population," said Chua Hoi-wai, the council's business director. "Poverty has become a continuing trend."
The wealth gap is also at record high. The highest income group in the city earns 3.6 times more than the low income group.
Drawing the poverty line at half of median household income, the council calculates that the number of people living in poverty rose from 1.15 million in 2011 to 1.187 million in 2012 - nearly 20 per cent of the population.
"The effect of the minimum wage is wearing off," said Christine Fang Meng-sang, the council's chief executive.
The minimum wage of HK$28 an hour, which is subject to review every two years, had not kept up with inflation, she said.
Fang urged the government to review and adjust the minimum wage . The first review has recommended it be raised to HK$30 an hour.
Poverty among young people and the middle-aged increased, with around 200,000 households classified as working poor. Poverty among children persisted at 22.4 per cent - or 181,000.
Poverty among old people is more severe in Hong Kong than in other developed economies, said Fang, because the city lacks a good retirement protection scheme or pension plan.
"Even though there is the Old Age Living Allowance coming in April, the government needs to carefully monitor how effective it is and whether adjustments need to be made.
"Ultimately, there needs to be more long-term goals and plans to establish a retirement plan for all," said Fang. The HK$2,200-a-month allowance is means-tested and payable to those over 65.
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said yesterday that work on setting a poverty line would start this week and be completed this year.