Casino-dominated Macau has taken the first steps towards addressing its massive wealth gap, with the first part of a report into the needs of its citizens to be published this month. The Quality of Life Centre, set up in February, commissioned a study into living standards by Hong Kong academics led by Wong Siu-lun, director of the Centre for Asian Studies at the University of Hong Kong. The researchers interviewed about 2,500 families, chosen at random. They asked questions on 18 aspects of quality of life, including education, health care, work and living environment. Data from the survey will be released this month, and a final report with conclusions and recommendations is expected by March. Thousands of people still live in shacks in the Ilha Verde district, or in abandoned old buildings in the Inner Harbour. Despite casino money pouring into Macau's economy and government, an ageing population is also burdening the city's public housing and hospital facilities. Beggars continue to appear at the taxi stands outside the ferry terminal and the casinos, pestering tourists. Yet Macau is not short of income. Direct casino tax - 35 per cent of gross revenues - is piling up in government coffers. This year it will amount to a projected 15.4 billion patacas. Another 1.6 per cent goes to the Macau Foundation, a public fund that publishes a quarterly academic journal on the city, operates an exhibition gallery and holds contests such as the Macau image logo design competition. Last year, that 1.6 per cent translated into 673.8 million patacas, almost 70 per cent more than the total expenditure of the Macau Bureau of Social Assistance (IAS). This year, the foundation is expected to receive 706.8 million patacas. Vitor Ng Wing-lok, president of the Macau Foundation, declined a request to discuss how the casinos' tax contributions helped the foundation's work. 'That 1.6 per cent has been given to us according to the law, and we spend it according to our organisation's goals. So there is nothing to discuss,' Mr Ng said in a written statement, which his assistant read over the phone. The Macau government gazette gives a glimpse of how the casinos' compulsory contribution has been spent. Starting from 2002, the foundation is paying 22.5 million patacas to renowned architect Ieoh Ming Pei over three years. Pei has designed the Macau Science Centre, a 600 million pataca project in the Outer Harbour to be completed next year. Ambrose So Shu-fai, a director of Stanley Ho Hung-sun's Sociedade de Jogos de Macau (SJM), said it was not up to the casinos to question where their tax money went. 'We pay because it is our responsibility,' Mr So said. 'We have no say over how the money is spent. It is up to Macau citizens to direct those questions to the government.' Peter Au Chi-keung, chief of research and planning at the Bureau of Social Assistance, said that just because Macau's economy was booming, it did not mean there should be a corresponding rise in social assistance. When Macau's economy went through hard times between 1999 and 2002, instead of cutting social assistance expenditure the government increased it steadily, he said. 'We live in a capitalist society, so some inequality is inevitable,' Mr Au added. According to the bureau's statistics, social assistance spending rose 13 per cent from 2000 to 2001, when the economy grew only 2.8 per cent. From 2001 to 2002, spending rose 4.5 per cent, while the economy grew 10.1 per cent. From 2003 to 2004, when Macau's economy took off, with 28 per cent GDP growth, social assistance spending increased 34.5 per cent. Some steps have been taken in light of the population's ageing. By 2010, one in 10 citizens is projected to be aged 65 or above, the social assistance bureau projects. Mr Au cites as an example of these preparations the newly launched annual subsidy known as 'Respect the Elderly Money'. More than 40,000 elderly have applied to receive it. Anyone who reaches 65 is eligible to receive a subsidy of 1,200 patacas a year. Some have criticised the government for not taking bolder steps - the scheme is estimated to cost only 40 million patacas a year. But Chao I-sum, director of the Macau Neighbourhood Association's Iao Hon Community Centre, a 20-year veteran of social work who specialises in elderly care, applauds the government for instituting a system that will help it distribute more subsidies in the future. 'Now it is 1,200 patacas. In the future it could be much more,' she said.