Hong Kong has made a promising start to the war on poverty but there's much that needs to be done

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 October, 2015, 12:37am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 October, 2015, 12:37am

Ever since an official poverty line was drawn up two years ago to help the needy, there appears to have been some progress. Thanks to hefty government handouts and subsidies, some 360,000 people were lifted out of poverty last year. The number of people classified as poor continued to ease, from over one million in 2012 to 962,000 last year. The poverty rate - 14.3 per cent of the population - was a six-year low. It is tempting to say that the government's efforts in alleviating poverty have paid off.

While the numbers speak for themselves, they are only part of a broader picture. After discounting the government subsidies, there were still more than 1.3 million poor people last year, representing 19.6 per cent of the population. The numbers are similar to those the year before. As Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said, the situation could only be described as stabilising.

The progress owes much to the prevailing economy and the efforts made by the current administration. In a significant policy change from his predecessors, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying accepted the suggestion of a poverty line - drawn at half the median household income according to household size - to identify a clearer target of people in need of help. The move also gives the government a better idea of the scale of the problem, as well as a useful benchmark by which the effectiveness of policies can be measured.

As highlighted at the Commission on Poverty's summit earlier, the challenge is getting bigger. Officially, poverty among the elderly has increased by 19 per cent, from 366,500 people in 2009 to 436,400 in 2014. About one in three elderly persons is defined as poor. It has been said that the problem may be overstated, as the poverty line only considers income but not assets. But with the proportion of senior citizens set to increase from the present 14 per cent to more than 30 per cent by 2043, poverty among the elderly is a cause for concern.

The outlook for youngsters is not much better. Although the poverty rate for youth is considerably lower compared to other categories such as the elderly and single-parent families, a general decline in social mobility means job opportunities for the younger generation are also restricted, as reflected in the double-digit unemployment rate for those aged 15-19.

Like in many advanced world economies, poverty is an ongoing challenge. The latest figures should give fresh impetus to the government to do more to help people in need.