Officials scrap plan to redraw Hong Kong poverty line
Government makes U-turn after critics slam proposal that subsidies for public housing flats be included in calculation of household income
The government has shelved its controversial proposal to revise the city’s poverty line by including subsidies offered to public housing tenants – a move that would have taken hundreds of thousands off the poor list.
The rejection of the idea by the Poverty Commission yesterday came despite Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor backing it as a better way to reflect the poverty situation in Hong Kong.
Subsidised housing is not taken into account for the current poverty line, which is drawn at half the median household income in Hong Kong and is adjusted by household size.
The government had initially informed the commission of its intention to revise the calculation system during a closed-door meeting yesterday, arguing that housing subsidies should be seen as part of poverty relief measures, as was the practice in some overseas cities.
It would in effect have reduced the population classified as living under the poverty line by 33 per cent, from 960,000 in 2014 to an estimated 640,000 according to official figures. It would also mean the number of poor people would only make up 10 per cent of the city’s population instead of the current 15 per cent.
“The new calculation is just a tactic to reduce the number of poor people in the city,” said lawmaker Frederick Fung Kin-kee, a member of the commission.
He welcomed Lam’s decision to maintain the current poverty line, after the proposal was rejected by most commission members.
Several calculations were floated to the commission on how to decide the amount of housing subsidy to be counted as part of household income.
According to one suggestion, the amount would be measured by the difference between market rent in the same district and actual rent paid by a public housing tenant. A cap would then be imposed on the market rental.
Fung objected to this as it would be too difficult to compare market rentals, and decide at which level they should be capped.
University of Hong Kong associate professor in social work Law Chi Kwong, also a commission member, said there were too many technical implications for the government’s proposal, which would be hard to achieve.
But another member, lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, agreed with Lam.
A family of four living in a public housing flat in Lam Tin strongly opposed the idea.
The Wong family, who earn around HK$15,000 a month, fall just below the line of HK$16,400 for a household of their size. They would stop qualifying for the government’s relief measures if the poverty line was adjusted according to the proposal.
“It’s not fair as our income never really got a boost,” said the mother, who refused to give her name. “In reality we could only afford a partitioned flat if we were to rent in the private market.”
The city’s public rental housing currently provides affordable accommodation for more than two million people, accounting for about a third of the population, at an average rent of less than HK$2,000 a month.
In 2013, 2 per cent, or 20,445 households, were under “Well-off Tenants Policies”, meaning their income exceeded the limit and they had to pay 1.5 times or double the net rent plus rates.
On Saturday, Lam maintained that a revision of the standard was needed and rejected accusations that the government was trying to make it look like there were fewer people under the poverty line.