Hong Kong mulls new voucher scheme to provide after-school care services for low-income families

  • Welfare chief Law Chi-kwong says government is thinking of using a more flexible format to meet needs of low-income families
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2018, 8:25pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 November, 2018, 10:30am

A new voucher scheme to provide after-school care services for Hong Kong’s low-income families is being considered, the welfare minister said on Sunday.

That came after an annual report last week revealed close to 1.38 million people were classed as poor in 2017 – a nine-year high – with 17.5 per cent of local children living in poverty despite government intervention.

On Sunday, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong told a radio programme the government was thinking of using a more flexible voucher format to provide after-school care services to meet the needs of low-income families.

“We are pro-child and care about their welfare,” Law said, adding there was a lot for the government to do for children after seeing the child poverty situation.

“Putting money in children’s education and welfare is an investment, which will help society’s development in the long run.”

After-school care services, including homework help, parental guidance and other social activities, are provided by NGOs on a self-financing and fee-charging basis for children aged six to 12 whose parents are unable to look after them temporarily because of reasons such as work.

Families with a monthly income at or below 55 per cent of the median monthly domestic household income can receive a full fee waiver under the Social Welfare Department's after-school care programme. Those with an income between 55 per cent and 75 per cent can have fees waived by half.

There are 156 centres providing such services with fee-waiving subsidies, but there have long been complaints about an inadequate number of places.

9 in 10 Hong Kong children on welfare not having basic needs met

Law noted the Commission on Poverty had previously increased the number of such places with help from the Community Care Fund.

In October last year, the government launched a three-year pilot scheme, relaxing the income limit for poor families through the fund, providing 2,000 additional fee-waiving and fee-reduced places.

Under the scheme, families with a monthly income between 75 per cent and 100 per cent of the median could also benefit from reduced fees, with theirs lowered by a third.

Labour sector lawmaker Jonathan Ho Kai-ming welcomed the voucher proposal, saying it would be better for funding to follow the parents.

But he said the bigger issues with such childcare services were the lack of manpower and space.

“The government could use some schools after classes had finished for after-school care services and hire part-time staff to help,” he suggested.

Officials had explained that the figure of 17.5 per cent of children living in poverty, which was 0.3 percentage points higher than the previous year, was due to a change in calculation methods.

But social service advocates expressed concern over the high proportion regardless of the calculation, and warned it meant the city could have generations of children being raised in poverty.

Chua Hoi-wai, head of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, said the financial pressures on lower-income families affected a child’s education.

Law acknowledged these families needed help. He added that the government was studying the extension of after-school care services for kindergarten children, and offering subsidies to poor families for such services.

“Taking care of young children is very stressful for low-income families,” Law said.

The minister said some parents resorted to enrolling their children in full-day kindergarten classes, which were more costly. Even so, these classes tended to end at about 3pm to 4pm.

He noted that providing these services to those with young children could free up manpower.

Although some kindergartens provided extended-hours services and certain NGOs had home-based care for children aged under nine, parents had long complained that there were not enough places.

Whatever the true numbers, poverty is a blight on Hong Kong

Separately, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung announced on his blog an inclusive playground in Tuen Mun Park would open next month.

The project is part of a pilot scheme with public participation and will feature the winning design of the Inclusive Play Space Design Ideas Competition.

The design showcases the two natural elements of water and sand.

“Children with disabilities and healthy children can have equal opportunities to play in the playground according to their individual abilities,” Cheung said.