Take on the challenges to eradicate poverty

Updated: 2013-11-08 10:28

By Kalina Tsang (HK Edition)

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Hong Kong's first official poverty line announced in September marks a historic move in the poverty alleviation work of the HKSAR government. Oxfam Hong Kong welcomes the government's initiatives in tackling the poverty problem, particularly studying measures to assist working poor families. Setting the poverty line is just the first step, and we believe a more comprehensive and holistic approach is needed to tackle the root cause of poverty in the long run.

In the Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report 2012, six social groups are identified - the working poor, Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) recipients, the elderly, single parents, new arrivals and youth and children. The needs and situations of each social group are different, and there's no single fast and strict rule that can solve all poverty problems. A more comprehensive strategy with a clear poverty reduction target is needed to address the specific needs and to offer tailored support to each affected social group.

Instead of giving out money, we think a more effective way to help the least disadvantaged is to enhance their self-reliance through building up a better welfare, education and retraining system. We propose three measures. First, a low-income family subsidy should be introduced to assist the working poor to raise children. Second, child-care support should be strengthened to enable single parents to work. And third, the educational system should be improved to allow upward mobility for the children from the ethnic minorities.

Working poor is one of major disadvantaged groups which is left out of the all-catch safety net of CSSA. It accounts for more than half of the poor people living in working households. Among them, more than 90 percent (143,600 households) do not apply for CSSA. Yet, more than half (60 percent) of them have the heavy burden of raising children. In view of this, we have called for the introduction of Low Income Family Subsidy to help these targeted families.

Oxfam's recommendation is that the first two eligible children of working poor families will receive HK$800 each, the third and fourth child HK$600 each, and the fifth and subsequent ones HK$400 each. With a reasonable cost of around HK$1.73 billion, 110,000 working poor households with children can benefit. This scheme can assist more than 400,000 people, including 180,000 children. We believe this subsidy can help them maintain a basic standard of living without having to apply for CSSA, and most importantly, prevent inter-generational poverty. To effectively achieve these goals, the government should set a target to reduce the total number of poor children by half within five years.

The poor single-parents group is probably smaller in numbers (81,000 persons), but this group has the highest CSSA take-up rate of 68.1 percent, while only 16.2 percent of them are economically active. Even if many single-parents on CSSA are willing to work, they could not find someone to take care of their young children during work. Institutional child care service is either inaccessible or expensive to them. Though some fee waivers are offered to low income households, quotas are always limited and in high demand.

To encourage single-parents on CSSA to take up a job, it is crucial for the government to revise the disregarded earnings system in CSSA, like allowing the disregarded earnings to be used on child-care expense. It is worthy for the government to strengthen child-care support service, and to explore more retraining and job opportunities catered for their needs.

Poverty eradication is not a mission impossible. It can succeed if the government and the community at large are determined and committed to take on the challenges and not afraid to make changes.

The author is senior manager of the Hong Kong Programme Unit at Oxfam Hong Kong.

(HK Edition 11/08/2013 page9)