Monday, 16 December 2013

Starving For the Sake of the Children

We are not surprised by sad nonetheless to hear a report that says 60 percent of low-income parents cut down on food and medical expenses to provide for their children.

Oxfam Hong Kong interviewed 400 families, 97 percent of which don't apply for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) even though they live below the poverty line.

All the families had at least one child under the age of 18 and one of the parents works full time. Their monthly income comes to less than half of the median household income for families the same size.

"Many of them told us that they hate being associated with the Social Welfare Department [which hands out CSSA payments]," said Wong Shek-hung, program manager at Oxfam.

She said there was a stigma attached to claiming CSSA, which covers the unemployed as well as low-earners and these low-income families didn't want to be considered hard working or that they accepted handouts.

Around 81 percent "hoped to to earn [their] own living" and that was the main reason they didn't apply.

Wong said more than 75 percent of the workers interviewed worked 44 hours per week, and 31.7 percent worked 60 hours or more.

The lack of extra money means children of these low-income families are unable to get learning materials and aren't able to participate in activities outside of school.

Almost 96 percent of those interviewed said there should be specific subsidies for low-income families.

As a result Oxfam suggests a monthly cash allowance of HK$800 for each of the first two children in a family, HK$600 for the third and fourth, and HK$400 for the fifth child and the rest, where one family member is working full time.

These suggested figures are half the rates allowed for children in the CSSA program, and the annual cost would be HK$1.73 billion.

Wong said to avoid the stigma around handouts the subsidy should be administered by the Labour Department and not the Social Wefare Department.

Kalina Tsang Ka-wai, Oxfam's senior program manager said the minimum wage needed to be reviewed first.

"The problem for these households is, ultimately, their low income," she said. "The minimum wage [which is reviewed every two years] can't even keep up with inflation right now.

"It'll be hard to maintain their current living standards even with a [child] subsidy if the minimum wage doesn't rise."

The government should seriously consider Oxfam's suggestion as a stop-gap measure for those who don't want to be on CSSA or are not eligible to at least give them some kind of financial relief. What is HK$1.73 billion from Hong Kong coffers? Hardly anything and yet it would be so helpful to these needy families.

We know the government is trying to figure out its strategy on tackling poverty in they city, but there should be some kind of temporary payments now until a more solid plan is in place. How much longer can poor people wait?

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