Monday, 15 April 2013

Working Poor Plunging into Despair

We've already read about one in five people in Hong Kong categorized as the working poor.

Not only is this shocking, but their hard lives eking out a living have psychological and physical impacts on their health.

And 20 percent of those with low incomes in Hong Kong, living on less than HK$10,000 ($1,228)  a month are more likely to suffer from excessive anxiety because of inflation and their situation will likely get worse as prices increase.

That rate is three times that of those on high incomes, according to a study of 5,000 people by the Mood Disorders Centre of Chinese University.

The poll was conducted in the last quarter of 2011 and monitored for a year for inflation trends. Researchers observed a link between inflation and mental health.

If the condition is displayed for at least six months, it is called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), with symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, irritability and difficulty concentrating.

"I've woken in the middle of the night with my heart beating wildly and had to be taken to hospital," said a woman diagnosed with the disorder in 2009. Her son supports them both on his HK$10,000 a month salary.

She worried most about rising food costs. "I often go to the wet market or grocery store and leave without buying anything because it's all too expensive," she says, adding she had not eaten meat in years and only bought discounted fruit that was almost rotting.

When there is high inflation, people's incomes do not usually keep up with rising food costs, resulting in the deprivation of food, goods and services, and deteriorating quality of life that leads to stress and mental health issues.

"Those with household incomes of less than HK$10,000 are the most likely to suffer from GAD," explained Professor Lee Sing, director of the Mood Disorders Centre at Chinese University.

The survey found 84 percent of people in Hong Kong are affected by inflation to varying degrees. But those who responded that inflation "significantly affected" them have a 4.4 times higher prevalence of GAD than those who did not.

Inflation hit a peak in 2011 at 5.3 percent, compared to 2 percent in 2006. Currently it is at 4.4 percent according to official figures. Between 2006 and 2011, the city saw 50,000 new diagnoses of GAD in the adult population.

For low income people with GAD, the biggest concern is the rising cost of food, while higher income people, like those making over HK$60,000 a month with the disorder were more worried about diminished savings.

"Inflation is much more than just statistics," said Lee. "It has an immense impact on people's everyday lives. Without timely help, anxiety will worsen and make people more susceptible to developing ... depression and suicidal behaviour."

It's hard to encourage low-income earners to be optimistic because it is difficult to get out of their situation. "There's nothing [the poor] can do," says Law Ka-chung, chief economist at Communications Bank. "They can move away from Hong Kong, but things are getting quite expensive on the mainland. If they stay, they can't expect the government to help them much."

We hope this study rings alarm bells for the Hong Kong government. The working poor really need access to social services, more subsidies or financial aid just to get by. This situation of literal survival is shocking to hear in such a wealthy city. It is time for the authorities to really help those in need, otherwise social issues are going to spiral downwards even further.


  1. On a related note: I feel like I see more homeless people these days in Hong Kong. And sadly, many of them are elderly folks -- female as well as male.

  2. Yes and what is even more frustrating is that the Hong Kong government doesn't do enough to look after this segment of the population!!!