Workfare: Does the youth need it too?

I took my first part-time job straight after my O-levels, and spent two weeks selling accessories out of a makeshift stall in the basement of Orchard Cineleisure.  The pay was a meagre $4 per hour, but the heightened purchasing power was heady to a 16-year-old. Whiling the hours away at work I would list, in my head, all the things I wanted to buy, cafes I wanted to visit.

Talking shop with the neighbouring stall assistant one day, I was expecting to trade stories of how we would spend our pay. Then Sarah, a petite Chinese-speaking girl a year younger than me, told me how her wages – all $750 of it – would go towards pocket money for herself and two younger sisters.

I earn more during the holidays, said Sarah, who had stopped taking pocket money that year from her parents, both canteen vendors. During the school term, she worked at fast-food outlets in the evenings and on weekends.

For many students such work-school arrangements are the norm. Data from the Ministry of Manpower[i] revealed that the percentage of youths aged 15-24 engaged in part-time work jumped from nine to 24% in the decade between 1999 and 2009. Slightly less than half of this group worked and schooled at the same time.

But while some take on jobs to supplement their allowance and increase their spending power, for the children of many families in the lower income brackets, the money goes to necessities like transport and pocket money.

While those over 35 in similar low-income circumstances can fall back upon workfare, there is currently no equivalent that provides working youths with an income supplement.

The existing model of workfare provides low-wage workers with financial assistance, and a progressive payment scale linked to age rewards older workers more greatly, to encourage them to stay in the workforce.

The benefits of workfare are numerous and oft espoused – it encourages the older generation to upgrade their skills and stay employable, and provides Singapore with a greater pool of human resource. On an individual level, workfare recognises the difficulties low-wage employees face in an extension of financial aid, and makes them feel valued by including them in Singapore’s economic progress.

While some of these positives were intended for the older crowd, perhaps there is merit in extending such a scheme to the youths in society as well. While needy students are not without financial aid, currently this comes in the form of handouts, bursaries and subsidies – none of which directly support the efforts of youths working part time to earn their keep.

A proposed approach would be offering workfare to youth aged 15-24 that are also full-time students, so that they receive a combination of cash and CPF income supplements until they complete their education and enter the workforce full-time to earn a more substantial keep. These students would come from households in the lowest 20% income bracket. Based on Singstat figures from 2011, this puts their average monthly household income at $3,135[ii].

Approximately 762,000 individuals fall into this income bracket, and 6% of them, or roughly 45,720 are youth who would benefit from such a program[iii].

In the last financial year, 47%, or $450.5 million of the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) budget went to enhancing the financial security of Singaporeans, which includes workfare. Assuming each student gets a thousand dollars per year, which is approximately what each worker in the 35-44 age bracket receives, incorporating this new segment of society into the workfare scheme would cost the government $45.7 million.

This may seem, at first glance, like a hefty sum. However, social safety nets are an investment that no government should stint on, given that such aid is intended for the most vulnerable sectors of society.

Workfare would therefore be a means of support for working youth, differing from handouts and subsidies because it directly acknowledges the difficulties students face while working through school. Given that these students will mature into full-time members of the workforce, it is also in our nation’s best interests to ensure that society is inclusive of them, in order to prevent the disenchantment that may sometimes accompany members of the working class.

And while opponents of such a scheme may decry the potential detriment towards students’ academic performance, students who have supported themselves since adolescence have found their experience tough but rewarding.

Yi Ping, a plucky Nanyang Polytechnic student who has waited tables at numerous F&B outlets since her secondary school days, summed it up: “Part-time work is hard, but it builds character.”




[iii] Population figures from the Department of Statistics, Ministry of Manpower. All calculations are my own.

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