Poverty is a disease that still persists in Hong Kong. Despite strong GDPs, strong trade and large amounts of capital coursing through the economic veins of the city, the poor and elderly live in partitioned flats and “coffin” homes. In the New Territories, the neighborhood of Tin Shui Wai is known colloquially as the “City of Sadness” for its high suicide and unemployment rates.
At the bottom percentile, household incomes average HK$2,170 (S$340).
It is no doubt that Hong Kong spends well on social welfare (total estimated expenditure of the Social Welfare Department is HK$43.5 billion or SGD$6.87 billion). Unlike Singapore, they have adopted minimum wage, pensions and a universal welfare system.
Yet, problems continue to gnaw at the heart of the country, for example:
The poverty line for a one-person family is HK$3,275 per month
40% of the Hong Kong population live in subsidised public housing
100,000 people live in coffin, cage homes and rooftops
Over 1,000 people are homeless
Hong Kong has highest income gap between the rich and the poor of any developed economy in the world
There are 650,000 working poor
300,000 children do not get 3 meals a day
1 in 3 seniors struggle to meet their basic nutritional needs
The city’s Chief Executive is not amused. Leung Chun Wing will head committees to tackle the many problems citizens face. To do so, he urges both law makers and the city government for co-operation. With a two-year deadline, this high level commission is tasked with reducing rates of poverty.
How the said commission plans to do all this remain under wraps. Press material merely give the official direction: “there will be efforts in planning and co-ordinating the work of different bureaus and departments to rationalise policies and integrate resources to implement anti-poverty measures.”
Amongst ideas discussed were also interesting perspectives on fostering tripartite collaboration.
With uneven distribution of income and widening of social/income gaps, inequality is further aggravated by large portions of the economy being dominated by small groups of tycoons. Growing unemployment and destruction of industries mean that some workers face no chance of rejoining the workforce. China’s ever increasing competitiveness has also shifted factories and manufacturing across to the mainland, resulting in the loss of jobs from this who are unskilled or unwilling to upgrade.
The current unemployment rate in Hong Kong is reported at 3.3 percent. In June 2003, it hit an all-time high of 8.60%. The creation of new, sustainable jobs with equal opportunity is of paramount importance. Observably, the industries that pay well and attract talent are ring-fenced around finance and property. However, wholesale and trading are wedged strongly as the stronghold of Hong Kong employment, hiring a good 30% chunk of workers.
With a demographic, social and economic landscape that is fairly similar to Singapore’s, Hong Kong is an important model for us to study. The country had recently adopted minimum wage and it spends almost the equivalent of Singapore’s GST proceeds on universal welfare each year. It would be ripe in a few years to see if these programs lead to more jobs and lower poverty.
Sources: Hong Kong Council of Social Services, Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department, SOCO, Oxfam Hong Kong