Trapped in an unbreakable cycle of poverty, Hong Kong’s single mums just want to work
Campaigners say the welfare system punishes women who earn above a bare minimum and badly needs reforming to encourage more to seek jobs
Li, a 52-year-old single mother from mainland China, was left to raise her two-month-old son alone when her Hong Kong husband died in 2004.
Since then she has been trapped in an unbreakable cycle of poverty, although she has been receiving social security benefits.
“I want to go to work, but I can’t,” she said.
Li, who asked to be identified only be her surname, is one of 26,779 single parents who receive Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA). The government handouts are calculated according to a 1996 study of basic living needs, with monthly payments ranging from HK$2,420 to HK$6,265 per person.
If a recipient earns more than HK$800 a month, the government deducts half of their income from their allowance. Concern group Society for Community Organisation (Soco) has said this requirement has discouraged recipients from entering the work force and becoming financially independent. They believe the limit should be raised and capped at HK$1,200.
“The system has not been changed for the past 10 years. The current requirement of HK$800 hasn’t taken the inflation rate into consideration,” Soco community organiser Wendy Huang Wenjie said.
“We hope to cap it at HK$1,200 because according to most of the recipients we talked to they earn less than HK$1,200 a month in order to subsidise their incomes,” she said. “They mostly take up manual labouring jobs being waitresses and cleaners.”
“A lot of them want to work to improve their quality of life. But their hard work just doesn’t pay off under the current system. That’s why many of them are forced to remain unemployed.”
Li’s son, now 13, has been diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder and has been performing poorly at school. She said she still needed extra cash for medical and tutorial fees, although she now received HK$8,000 per month from the government.
“I worked as a waitress and cleaner before in order to subsidise the monthly income,” she said. “But when I had the extra money, I lost part of my allowance. Now I feel like I’m trapped in the system with no way out and like a second-class citizen.”
A Soco study suggested that seven out of 10 Hong Kong women on CSSA payments would like to be financially independent. But 75 per cent of these 101 women surveyed remained unemployed.
It also found that 13 per cent of them had part-time jobs. And although 71 per cent of them hoped to stand on their own feet, only 5 per cent believed it would be possible within a year.
Another reason for the low employment rate, Huang said, was because of a lack of community support, such as childcare services to allow them time to work.
In Li’s case, childcare services for three hours a day would cost her about HK$1,500 a month.
The deputy CEO of the Women’s Foundation, Rita Ching, said there was no incentive for single mothers to work under the existing system, mostly because of unaffordable childcare.
The foundation offers both financial literacy and employability training programmes for marginalised women to help them return to the workforce.
“It is not easy for them,” she said. “If they are not allowed to work, then they will never be able to leave their comfort zone. It can take quite a long time for them to join or rejoin the workforce.
“From our experience, we certainly need to give them lots of psychological support.”
She suggested that employers should be more open to the idea of job shares in order to enable single mothers to team up with other single mothers and share the childcare burden.
Jessie Yu, chief executive of the Hong Kong Single Parents Association, said there needed to be more free courses to get single mothers back into work, and called for the establishment of an alimony council to ensure they maintained their basic living costs.
“It is really important for them to work as having their own careers enables them to regain their confidence, self-awareness, self-value and rebuild their social lives,” she said.
How Li spends her HK$8,000 social security benefits
Li and her 13-year-old son live in a public housing estate in Sham Shui Po. The rent is wholly subsidised by the government.
Tutorial classes and extracurricular activities: HK$1,000
Electricity and water: HK$800
Food and other miscellaneous items: HK$6,000