Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Defining Poverty in Hong Kong

Many poor seniors taken on menial jobs to make ends meet
Hong Kong does not have a comprehensive plan on how to tackle poverty.

Part of the problem is that it does not have an official poverty line and so there is no exact number.

This makes it convenient for the government to claim whatever number it deems suitable for the situation.

However NGOs are saying there are many more who are unaccounted for and are falling through the cracks.

They believe an additional 700,000 aren't getting the welfare assistance they need.

Currently some 450,000 to 460,000 are identified by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service as living in poverty because they receive payments from Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA), but social welfare groups believe they only make up 40 percent of the total poor in the city. They say the total should be 1.15 million.

"If they are not on the dole, there is next to nothing between the poor and the stone-cold hard floor," said Hong Kong Oxfam's director general Stephen Fisher.

The council defines living in poverty as half the median monthly household income, meaning HK$3,500 ($452) for one person, HK$13,250 for a family of four.

While officially establishing the poverty line would be a good start, it does not necessarily encompass the various shades of poverty in the city.

"A poverty threshold is a headline measure -- it's an objective measurement based on income statistics," said Fisher. "It's a practical and straightforward way of identifying who is poor."

He admitted governments do not like setting this poverty line because it is an easy way for stakeholders, in particular legislators, social groups and the media to easily monitor the government on how effective it was in dealing with poverty issues through black-and-white numbers.

Chua Hoi-wai is a policy advocacy and social enterprise business director for the Council of Social Service. He explained there were many different situations of poverty in Hong Kong which results in a discrepancy in numbers. The council says the number of elderly poor is increasing, now at about 288,000, while the government claims 153,900 receive CSSA.

"You have elderly people who have no income, but maybe own an old decrepit property and this may keep them from receiving welfare, even though they are barely hanging on," explains Fisher.

Others decline welfare because that would mean their children were not taking care of them. As a result many seniors resort to menial jobs like collecting cardboard and aluminum cans for a few extra dollars.

Fisher believes locals, especially seniors, have a strong sense of dignity and do not want to ask for help despite inflation and rising property prices.

"There needs to be a range of social safety nets before relying on long-term social welfare; like low income supplements, negative income tax and family allowances," he said.

"We need to work against poverty -- not just by giving money, but by helping poorer people from having to rely on permanent welfare. This is what it means to eradicate poverty."

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has pledged to help the poor and hopefully his administration will set the poverty line soon with the input of social welfare groups. That way they can start to build a comprehensive long-term plan to help those in need and more importantly get them out of poverty through a variety of services because just giving handouts exacerbates the problem.


  1. My heart bleeds whenever I see old people scavenging for recyclable materials and hauling garbage. Hong Kong is rich enough that people shouldn't be doing that in their old age.

    I also am really appalled that in this day and age, there still are "cage homes" and dwellers of such nasty accommodation in Hong Kong. Shame on the tycoons and super rich Hong Kong residents who won't give money to find better homes for these seriously poor folks.

  2. Well it's really shame on the government for not having a long-term plan on helping the poor, particularly the elderly poor. Just throwing money at them is not going to solve the problem. So the fact that they are going to soon figure out the poverty line is already a huge step...