What hope for the poorest? Hong Kong wealth gap hits record high
Report finds richest 10 per cent in city earn 44 times that of the poorest
Hong Kong’s wealth gap has widened to a historic high, with the richest household now earning about 44 times what the poorest family scrapes together, despite government efforts to alleviate poverty.
The government’s findings put the city behind New York as the world’s second-most unequal city in terms of income, according to the household income distribution report released on Friday by the Census and Statistics Department.
The government tried to put a positive spin on the situation, claiming that the gulf between the haves and have-nots had actually registered a slight drop, taking into account the effects of taxation and social benefits.
Announcing the report findings, commissioner for census and statistics Leslie Tang Wai-kong pointed out that the Gini coefficient – an index from 0 to 1 that measures the wealth gap – for households rose by 0.002 from 0.537 in 2011 to a record high of 0.539 last year. That was the highest figure since the city began keeping records on income equality 46 years ago.
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New York topped the list at 0.551 while Washington came in the third place at 0.535.
The 2016 figures showed a further worsening of Hong Kong’s wealth gap, as the richest 10 per cent of households – with a median monthly income of HK$112,450 – earned 44 times more than the poorest 10 per cent making an average of HK$2,560.
Tang attributed the growing disparity to the adverse impact of an ageing population coupled with an increase in the number of smaller households.
The number of elderly people – at 1.16 million – rose 2.6 per cent to 15.9 per cent of the total population between 2011 and 2016.
During that period, the number of elderly households categorised as economically inactive increased by 57,000. The number of one-member households also rose 15.6 per cent to 488,461, accounting for about 20 per cent of the total.
Tang said the wealth gap was actually widening at a slower pace compared with a rise of 0.004 between 2006 and 2011, thanks to the government’s increased efforts to help the impoverished, including an increase of over 40 per cent in welfare spending on public housing and medical benefits for the poor.
Handouts such as the old age living allowance and low-income working family allowance had also eased the aggravating impact of the ageing population, he said.
To better reflect the actual economic well-being of the city’s households, Tang said, the Gini coefficient should also include the effects of taxation and social benefits.
“Taking into account all these factors, the index actually dropped by 0.002 to 0.473 from 0.475 in 2011, the first decline over the past decades,” he argued.
But concern group Society for Community Organisation (SoCo) insisted the figure was still above the “warning level” of 0.4.
“It shows government’s policies were not able to cut inequality greatly,” the group said. “Hong Kong’s wealth in general has increased dramatically, but low-income families and individuals could not benefit from it.”
SoCo urged the incoming administration of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to tackle the problem by introducing rent allowance, reviewing the minimum wage policy and setting poverty reduction targets.
Chua Hoi-wai, head of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, called on the government to reconsider a universal pension scheme.
“Low-income elderly people are the most vulnerable group in Hong Kong, given the lack of retirement protection,” he said. “A universal pension scheme will effectively prevent the wealth gap from further widening.”