Poverty won't be tackled until more speak up for the poor, forum hears

Growing inequality took centre stage at the final 'Redefining Hong Kong' debate with calls for tackling poverty to have a higher priority

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 December, 2013, 11:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 January, 2015, 12:04pm

How one of the world's most prosperous cities manages to let nearly a fifth of its population exist in poverty is a question that bothers many.

Bad policies contribute to Hong Kong's widespread poverty and the government seems unwilling to tackle the issue, according to a panel of speakers at the year's final "Redefining Hong Kong'' discussion, hosted by the South China Morning Post.

The government talks about statistics ... but I don't see any concrete action

"The government talks about statistics and data, but I don't see any concrete action, I don't see compassion," said Fermi Wong Wai-fun, director of the ethnic minority rights group Unison. "The government may admit that there is poverty, but you don't see political commitment or any will to eliminate poverty."

With 1.3 million people - nearly one in every five city residents - considered poor, it will take more than cash handouts and subsidies to improve their lives, experts said.

In September the city revealed that one in every three elderly people is poor and one in every five children is poor.

The official poverty line is set at half the median household income. According to 2012 census statistics, a one-person household with an income of less than HK$3,600 per month is considered poor. For a two-person household the level is set at HK$7,700, and for a four-person household it is HK$14,300.

We’re obviously short of compassion when it comes to policymaking

Many of the poor actually work - half of the families who fall below the poverty line have at least one full-time worker. At least 644,000 people live in these "working poor" households, according to research by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service.

Chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's statement in September that poverty could never be eliminated drew criticism from Wong.

"Stating that we cannot eliminate poverty - as a principle in poverty alleviation - is actually a show of indifference," said Wong.

Leo Goodstadt, a former head of the Central Policy Unit which advises the government, said poverty persists because of lopsided economic development, antipathy towards social welfare and the low political priority of social issues.

I just hope …poverty could be on the political parties’ top agenda

Ordinary households have become increasingly worse off because of the economy's mismanagement, he added. The government has responded to its own failed policies by cutting welfare spending, further burdening the poor.

"We're obviously short of compassion when it comes to policymaking," Goodstadt said. "I'm not a great believer in relying on the government. It's the government's economic policies which have generated hardship and aggravated problems."

He added: "To say that poverty cannot be eradicated … it means that the government can tolerate and see poverty as part of the economy and the political agenda as well, which demonstrates that there seems to be no political view nor will to do anything about it."

The key for making more people happy is to ensure equal opportunities

In his book titled Poverty in the Midst of Affluence published this year, Goodstadt says Hong Kong has become a city of disparity where the poor get poorer and the rich get richer, while the government refuses to intervene and "balance things out".

Increasing productivity and encouraging people to work more has been the government's approach to poverty alleviation, but Goodstadt said at the panel discussion that he is no longer confident that hard work is sufficient to lift people out of poverty.

The most vulnerable - like the elderly and the disabled - have no way of improving their lives, he said. Services for them are stretched thin. The waiting time for a government-subsidised care home space for a disabled person is currently seven years, while the waiting time for early-intervention services for special needs children has risen 50 per cent in the past year.

The solution lies in community awareness, but also government intervention, said Goodstadt.

"The government won't do anything unless there is political pressure," said Alex Lo, columnist at the South China Morning Post and yesterday's third panel speaker. The most politically active people in the 1960s and 1970s were social workers, said Lo. But the political agenda since the 1970s has been dominated by the 1997 handover and anxiety over the mainland, and social issues had languished on the back burner.

"We've lost that political voice. It's important to regain that voice," said Lo. "It's not like we don't have a problem with poverty. It's because we don't talk enough about it. Political rights trump social issues."

There was no longer a distinct voice for social welfare today, a massive problem because policy-makers do not see the issue as critical any more, he said. Politicians chase higher-profile issues like democracy to get votes.

Lo said political lobbying has pushed democracy to the top of the government's agenda, so if social issues could find a prominent place on a political platform, it would pressure the government to take action.

"There are many things I'd like to tell [chief executive Leung Chun-ying] to do, but I don't think he'll listen to me," he said. "I just hope social issues like poverty could be on the political parties' top agenda."

Poverty is too complex an issue to resort to a one-policy fix, said Francis Lui Ting-ming, professor of economics at the Hong Kong University of Technology. "The government often makes things worse," he said.

Issues like property prices, land and housing are caused by government policy mistakes, he said. Economic stagnation, which has slowed social mobility, is also a problem.

Lui said Hong Kong's current situation is not unlike that of the 1960s and 1970s, when many lived in tiny cubicles with no bathrooms and when children sometimes missed meals. But there had been a sense of hope that by hard work, a better life was achievable.

"The income inequality in Hong Kong has always been very bad," said Lui.

However, Lo said the situation had changed greatly. "[Back then] there was a sense of hope and expectation that the child will do better than the parents. And largely that panned out and Hong Kong delivered. However, this is no longer true," said Lo, who said most of his friends now believe that their children will fare worse than themselves - a sentiment based on reality.

"I advocate for equality through opportunity," Lui said. "The key for making more people happy is to ensure equal opportunities. Then, we do also need some kind of safety net to protect the most vulnerable."

The lack of hope is creating a great deal of social pressure. "This is why," Lo said, "the protesters [on the streets] are getting younger and younger."