Why impoverished young Hongkongers are deprived of more than food
Experts argue they risk falling further behind in their personal development as they lack engagement with peers and extracurricular activities
Li Ching-wan caught a rat with his bare hands. The 12-year-old was sleeping when he felt something sitting on his forehead. He tried to knock it off but ended up grabbing the furry creature by its body.
“I hurled it away and it landed on the face of my grandmother, who was sleeping next to me,” Li said, “The rat was probably sleeping on my forehead.”
Living in a dilapidated and poorly ventilated subdivided flat in Cheung Sha Wan, Li and his 9-year-old stepbrother are two of the 235,100 local children who live below the poverty line.
The flat, measuring about 200 square feet, has been plagued by rat troubles for years. Rat faeces is visible in almost everycorner, and in the flat’s only bedroom, Li lives with four other family members on two bunk beds. A yellow liquid drips from the room’s water-damaged ceiling night after night.
According to the Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report released in October, the city’s child poverty rate last year stood at 23.2 per cent – almost 10 percentage points higher than the figure for those aged between 18 and 64 in the city. In addition, the Social Welfare Department reported there were currently 73,204 students on the city’s Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme, better known as CSSA.
These staggering figures, experts say, reveal insufficient support for children in low-income households in areas such as nutrition and education. They claim the government is negligent in these areas and thus undermining its own poverty relief efforts.
High number of local children in poverty
Sze Lai-shan, a Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) social worker who has been working with Li’s family, said existing social welfare policies could theoretically allow those in poverty to acquire enough food supplies. However, low-income families often find themselves skipping meals to save money for tuition or extracurricular activities that are required by their children’s schools.
Citing a 2011 survey SoCO conducted, Sze said around 26.6 per cent of CSSA participants ate “one meal less” to save money. “When we asked them whether they had three meals a day, 20.9 per cent of them said they didn’t,” she noted. “This number includes both children who are on and not on CSSA.”
She added that the survey found that around 25 per cent of children in poverty lacked adequate food and that half lacked adequate nutrition.
Li’s family now subsists on three individual CSSA schemes. His mother, an immigrant from the mainland who recently married his stepfather, still awaits her Hong Kong residency. Aware of his family’s financial struggles, the boy expects no celebratory dinners or gifts even during the Christmas holiday.
Asked what an ideal Christmas dinner might entail, he said: “If we really were to celebrate, we might go to Café de Coral where they sell rice with diced pork in sweet corn for HK$33.”
Li Yan-ling, Li’s mother, said HK $33 is what she usually spends on a lunch that would feed her and her two sons.
She said some street hawkers give her and her sons plates of rice rolls. “They each cost about HK$10 and that’s our lunch,” she added.
Under the CSSA scheme, a standard rate is payable to eligible children to meet their basic needs. In addition, children can apply for special grants to fulfil certain school related expenses.
However, a mother from a low-income background in Sham Shui Po who asked to be identified as Jen said a daunting amount of red tape stood between her and the government’s grants.
“Things like the signature of my employer and income statement are required,” she said. “Not every employer is so generous to give you his signature.” She noted that without the help of government grants she often had to cut back on food to pay for her nine-year-old son’s expenses at school.
“Now we go to Food Angel to get our meals for free twice a day, five days a week,” she said. “I can’t move because I’m pregnant with a second child. So my son brings the meals home.”
Food Angel is a local charity that gathers surplus food and serves it to those in need. Before receiving the charity’s help, Jen’s family could not afford meals with balanced nutrition.
“Because we had to buy whatever’s on sale, it was not uncommon that we’d have the same dish throughout the week,” she said.
Poverty contributes to social exclusion
Besides eating at food stands, Li almost never eats out, neither with his family or friends.
Hugo Horta, an assistant professor of education at the University of Hong Kong, said Li’s inability to participate in common activities would take a toll on his personal development.
“Poverty for the younger generation cannot be seen only from a financial standpoint,” he said, describing the social exclusion it bring as “even more damaging”.
When children are unable to have lunch with their peers, he said. “It creates in them a feeling of detachment, of not really belonging or integrating”. Such inequality had “consequences in the future”.
The professor said schools and the government should do more to help children feel included at school. But he warned that poverty relief measures must be handled with care, citing as an example a charity programme in New York.
“When they started to give free meals to kids in school, only the poor kids would go and have their free meal there,” he said. A sense of stigma led some of the children who needed them to avoid going.
But he said the New York school later changed its tactic and charged pupils a dollar for entrance on the grounds that the money would go to charity. “You can have meals provided for a rather symbolic fee so that everybody can go there without feeling discriminated,” he said.
Li’s mother acknowledged the family’s poverty had prevented the 12-year-old boy from being able to participate in school activities. She said the family had yet to join a single school outing. “With traffic and food costs, it adds up to a lot of money for us,” she explained.
She said her two sons also could not afford tutoring classes provided by the school, noting: “It costs a few hundreds dollars a semester. We thought hard about it and still decided that we couldn’t afford it.”
And the challenges rooted in poverty extended to extracurricular activities, she said. “My son is on the basketball team at school,” she said. “For a long time he wore a pair of broken sneakers to practise.”
As Christmas approaches and a new calendar year looms, Jen, the mother living in Sham Shui Po, said she hoped community centres could organise more activities for her son to connect with his peers as she could not afford to take him out to experience the holidays and their full festive nature.
“Going out means that we have to pay for transport, eating out and so on,” she said. “It can be quite a big burden.”
Yet asked where he wanted to go on Christmas Day, Jen’s son replied: “I just want to stay home with my mum.”
For more information about SoCO and Food Angel, please see:
Food Angel: http://www.foodangel.org.hk/en/