New thinking needed to level the playing field for those living in poverty
- It shames a city with deep financial reserves and no responsibility for defence or foreign affairs that so many people are living in difficult circumstances and so many children are being denied equal opportunity
More than 1.37 million Hongkongers live below the poverty line, according to the latest official figures. This raises the rate to just over 20 per cent, prompting claims – contested by officials – that the government is not doing enough to alleviate poverty. It may be true that the poverty rate came down to 14.7 per cent, or 1.01 million, similar to the previous year, after taking into account social welfare such as allowances for the elderly and low-income families. But these measures alleviate or brush over poverty in the short term. They do nothing to eradicate or address it in the future, when it becomes the more socially and economically pernicious next-generation or intergenerational poverty.
The latest Hong Kong Poverty Situation report provides a sobering reminder. Even after government cash handouts, 17.5 per cent of the city’s children live in poverty. That is nearly one in five. They come from households that do not have the resources to provide them with the opportunities they need to escape the poverty trap, including educational opportunities affordable to middle-class parents.
A lack of upward social mobility makes it harder to close the gap. Government cash handouts to prevent it getting wider before it can be addressed effectively over the longer term may spark cries of welfarism. But such criticism is rooted in high-growth days gone by when people believed they could escape poverty through a lifetime of hard work. Conversation with many young people no longer connects with this sense of hope. Prospects of living a comfortable life depend more on whether their parents can leave them a flat.
In the long run, only a serious investment in equal educational opportunity that unlocks their potential to improve their lot can break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Until that happens, Hong Kong will remain an ageing society divided by a structural poverty gap, at risk of being overly dependent on imported rather than home-grown talent. Alleviation of poverty will become part of an increasingly crushing welfare burden on a budget partly funded by selling land for inflated prices that makes housing unaffordable.
We should be better than that. Debate about where the poverty line should be drawn on the income ladder misses the point. It shames a city with deep financial reserves and no responsibility for defence or foreign affairs that so many people are living in difficult circumstances and so many children are being denied equal opportunity. To be sure, the government sinks more money into education than any other sector apart from health. Initiatives such as universal kindergarten vouchers are steps in the right direction. But it needs to think innovatively about how to change and adapt the traditional system to provide a more level playing field in meeting the challenges of the technological age.