Hong Kong’s welfare system has to help those in need
- Raising the threshold for payments to the elderly may not prompt mass protests, but in a city where many live in poverty a strong safety net must not be compromised
Unlike in some Western countries where pension age reforms have sparked civil unrest, Hong Kong’s move to raise the threshold for welfare payments to the elderly may not prompt any serious protests. But even though existing welfare recipients will not be affected when the age limit for elderly social security assistance is raised by five years to 65 next month, the government has to ensure that those in need will not be left out.
Our hard-working Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor used herself as an example to show that those aged above 60 are still capable of working. True as it may be, not everyone is privileged to earn such a hefty income. Some lawmakers also expressed dismay over her remarks at a question-and-answer session in the Legislative Council. Indeed many of that age group are still struggling to stay employed, let alone making a decent living. Currently, tens of thousands on the dole are aged between 60 and 65. The good news is that the change only applies to new applicants, who can still apply for payment in the adult category instead of elderly. But the amount will be one third less at HK$2,455 a month.
The government’s rationale is arguably not unreasonable. Owing to a fast ageing population and longer life expectancy, many public policies and social benefits, such as the civil service retirement age and elderly transport subsidies, have recently benchmarked against the age of 65 instead of 60. But the reality is that there is no law to mandate a higher retirement age in the private sector. It is not unusual to see low-skilled workers forced to retire prematurely as our knowledge-based economy advances in an ageing society. According to official data in 2017, just 46 per cent of those aged 60 to 65 had a job or were seeking one. Those who cannot support themselves have to turn to the welfare system. It is good to hear that the government has pledged to push a job-matching service for the elderly.
Starting from next month, payments for various social security schemes are to be raised by 2.8 per cent. This will benefit 1.26 million people and cost an extra HK$1.25 billion a year. Whether the amount for individual recipients is adequate is another matter. The safety net is meant to cover those who cannot stand on their feet. The principle must not be compromised when adjusting the welfare system.