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Editorial﹕Child poverty rising in Hong Kong

【明報專訊】THE government has revealed that the poverty rate has hit a nine-year high of 20.1%, with nearly 1.38 million people living in poverty. Although the government emphasises that its poverty alleviation efforts have produced good results, the poor population still stands at 1.01 million after taking into account the effects of cash welfare measures. Particularly worrying is that the number of children in poverty has risen rather than dropped after policy intervention, which is a wake-up call about intergenerational poverty. It is true that the government's social welfare expenditure has significantly increased in recent years. But what has happened in Europe and America has shown that wealth redistribution measures alone are not enough to narrow the gap between rich and poor and reverse the trend of wealth disparity worsened by free-market economics. Instead, the government must also approach the problem by means of tax, education and wage policies. Unequal educational opportunities have exacerbated the disparity between rich and poor. Children from low-income families commonly lack social as well as educational resources and live in poor conditions. The government should set up concrete targets for its vision and roll out more policies to help needy children.

The government has drawn the "poverty line" at half the median monthly household income and those living below the line are considered poor. Last year the poor population increased by 30,000 on the previous year to 1.38 million. But the government has maintained that the 1.38 million figure does not reflect the real situation because there are many poverty alleviation measures. After taking recurrent cash interventions into account, it says, the poor population falls to 1.01 million, a level similar to the year before. Factoring in other non-cash benefits like public rental housing will even reduce the poor population further to 0.72 million.

Indeed, every method of calculation has its limitations. The government can well argue that the poverty line cannot reflect the effects of its poverty alleviation policies like public rental housing, tertiary student financial assistance and the Elderly Health Care Voucher Scheme. However, to many grassroots families who are still waiting for public rental housing and have to pay a monthly rent of often more than ten thousand dollars, even a teahouse lunch set that costs dozens of dollars is a "luxury". Furthermore, many households may have a monthly income above the poverty line but still cannot make ends meet. In all these cases, people may all think the poverty line fails to reflect their difficulties in maintaining a living. Government officials should look at the poverty problem from the perspective of low-incomers rather than from its own perspective. The constant assertion by government officials that the limitation of the poverty line will "lead to an overestimate of the real poor population" inevitably invites doubts from the grassroots that the government does not think it is necessary to increase its poverty alleviation efforts.

One major concern about the latest poverty figures is the fact that the child poverty rate has risen by 0.3% from the previous year to 17.5% after taking policy intervention into consideration, bringing the number of impoverished children to 177,000. Officials have admitted that even though the elderly poverty rate has "improved significantly", that has been offset by the increase in the child poverty rate. A non-government survey has recently shown that one in every four Hong Kong children lives in poverty. Not only do they lack suitable space at home for revision or doing homework, but a small number of them even have less than three meals a day. These low-income children can only maintain a frugal living, and simply cannot afford any extra-curricular activities or tutoring classes. With their learning conditions falling increasingly behind those of the middle-class children, it is hard to say there are equal opportunities. That means it will be more and more difficult for grassroots children to move socially upward, which will definitely result in the aggravation of intergenerational poverty.

明報社評2018.11.20﹕基層貧童人口升 跨代貧窮成大患

政府公布本港貧窮人口接近138萬,貧窮率20.1%,升見9年新高。政府強調扶貧措施有成果,然而即使將現金福利措施計算入內,貧窮人口仍達101萬,兒童貧窮率不跌反升,更敲響跨代貧窮警鐘,情况尤其令人憂慮。近年政府社福開支顯著增長,惟歐美經驗證明,要將自由市場經濟加劇貧富懸殊的趨勢扭轉,單靠財富再分配措施不足以縮窄差距,還須從稅務、教育與工資政策入手。教育機會不平等導致貧富懸殊惡化,基層兒童普遍缺乏社交及學習資源,居住環境惡劣,政府應訂立具體願景目標,推出更多政策幫助貧窮兒童。

政府以住戶入息中位數一半釐定「貧窮線」,但凡家庭收入低於貧窮線,即屬貧窮人口。去年本港貧窮人口較之前一年增加近3萬,達到138萬。政府堅稱,138萬這數字不反映實際情况,因為政府有很多扶貧措施,在恒常現金福利政策介入後,貧窮人口為101萬,與之前一年相若;若將公屋等非現金福利亦計算入內,貧窮人口更只有72萬,云云。

誠然,任何數據計算方法都有局限,政府可以辯稱,貧窮線反映不到公屋、大專學費資助、長者醫療券等政策的扶貧效果,可是對於很多輪候公屋的基層家庭來說,單是每月租金就要上萬元,茶餐廳數十元一個午餐根本是「奢侈品」,不少家庭雖然月入高於貧窮線,仍然入不敷支。他們同樣覺得,貧窮線未能反映他們生活拮据情况。官員看待貧窮問題,應該多從基層角度而非政府本位出發。官員不斷強調貧窮線的局限「會導致高估真實貧窮人口」,基層市民難免懷疑,政府是否毋須加碼扶貧。

貧窮人口數字其中一個關注點,是去年兒童貧窮率在政策介入後仍較之前一年上升0.3個百分點,達到17.5%,貧窮人口增至17.7萬。政府官員承認,雖然長者貧窮率「明顯改善」,惟兒童貧窮率上升起了抵消作用。民間調查顯示,全港平均每4名兒童就有1名是貧童,他們在家不僅沒有合適地方溫書及做功課,小部分甚至無法吃足三餐。這些基層兒童平日節衣縮食,根本無錢參與課外活動或補習,與中產家庭學童擁有的學習條件愈拉愈遠,難言機會平等。基層學童向上流動愈益困難,結果必然是加劇跨代貧窮。

■Glossary

factor in sth﹕to include a particular fact or situation when you are thinking about or planning sth

make ends meet﹕to earn just enough money to be able to buy the things you need

frugal﹕using only as much money or food as is necessary

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