Hong Kong government slammed as poverty figure hits six-year high

Administration summit hears 20,000 more people were impoverished in 2015 than in previous year, bringing the total to 1.34 million

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 October, 2016, 10:53pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 October, 2016, 3:19am

The government’s efforts to alleviate poverty came under renewed criticism on Saturday as it was revealed that the number of impoverished Hongkongers surged to a six-year high.

The Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report 2015, the last study unveiled by the current administration at the Commission on Poverty summit on Saturday, is also regarded as an indicator of the performance of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who placed particular emphasis on tackling poverty in his election manifesto four years ago.

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Social workers said on Saturday that Leung had failed the task as they argued his administration had not got to the root of the problem over the years.

The latest figures showed 20,000 more people were living below the official poverty line in 2015 from the year before – making a total of 1.34 million, which is the highest number since 2009. The poverty rate has also increased slightly from 19.6 per cent to 19.7 per cent.

The poverty line, first set up by the government in 2013, is drawn at half the median household income according to household size.Those living below it are considered poor.

But after taking the government’s recurrent cash subsidies into account, such as Comprehensive Social Security Assistance and the Old Age Living Allowance, the total population living in poverty dropped to 971,000, which is still 9,000 more than in 2014.

The poverty lines of all household sizes rose in 2015. That for one-person households recorded the biggest proportional spike – rising HK$300 to HK$3,800.

Around 477,500 people in poverty are categorised as “working poor” families. A total of 14,200 are degree holders.

“I am very pleased to see that our efforts in combating poverty are paying off,” Leung told the annual summit.

High housing costs remained the core reason driving low-income households towards poverty, Leung said as he argued that providing more public rental housing was the only way to solve the problem.

While describing the poverty rate as “stable”, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who spearheads the Commission on Poverty, adopted a more pessimistic tone as she admitted it would be harder for the poverty rate to “drop persistently” in future, citing the extremely fast way that society was ageing and the continued decline in the average number of people per household.

The 2015 report showed that those aged 65 or above continued to be the most vulnerable group, with one in three living in poverty. But the government argued the figures might be overestimated as only income, but not assets, were measured in the study.

The one-person and two-person households, who are likely to be senior residents and single-parent families, also recorded a higher poverty rate than larger households.

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Veteran social worker Ho Hei-wah, the director of the Society for Community Organisation, blasted the government’s failure to help the needy overcome poverty, saying merely alleviating their plight was not enough.

“The government is trying to make the figures look better with the use of public resources,” he said, referring to the continued growth in the poor population before government initiatives or intervention are taken into account.

Ho, who was a core supporter of Leung in the last election, said the incumbent had “definitely failed” in battling poverty, and said his organisation would not openly endorse any candidates in the coming chief executive poll.

Ho also said the current methodology in drawing the poverty line had underestimated the issue and called on the government to consider actual cost of living as well.

“The current poverty line for a one-person household, HK$3,800, is too low. How could someone earning $4,000 per month not be considered poor?” he asked. “A coffin-sized home already costs them some HK$1,000. How could they live with the rest of the money?”

Social worker Chan Siu-ming, from a shadow poverty commission set up by social workers and activists to monitor the government body, also said it was irresponsible for the government to call the poverty rate “stable”.

“There is no change in the poverty rate for 2015 and it remains high even after government intervention,” Chan said. “Why has Leung achieved so little in his term when he keeps emphasising his work on poverty and housing issues?”

More than 10 low-income concern groups also criticised the government for not allowing them to join the summit.

Lam said it was hard for the pre-intervention figures to drop as the government’s official poverty line was based on the concept of relative poverty, as opposed to absolute poverty expressed in terms of basic subsistence.