Greetings from the Hong Kong University campus, where the grounds are beautiful, the students are neatly dressed, and nobody looks terribly hungover. As an Otago graduate, I can only identify with one of those aspects.
It is also where we have had a number of productive meetings on poverty and welfare in Hong Kong. From the conversations we’ve had so far, a few things are beginning to stand out.
First, elderly poverty is a major concern. In 2014, the elder poverty rate (measured as 50 percent of the median household income) was at 30 percent, while child poverty was at 18.2 percent. Elder poverty is to Hong Kong what child poverty is to New Zealand.
Hong Kong has no universal superannuation scheme, and a minimal social security allowance (with eligibility based on family and relative’s ability to care for their elders). Much of the older generation lack comprehensive formal schooling. Many did not complete a full high school education, let alone hold a university degree. This limits them to low or unskilled work. Many are currently working in the markets or food service industry.
There is also a social stigma around drawing on government-funded welfare, it is perceived by some as the elders’ failure as a parent if their own children cannot or will not support them.
Interestingly, Bryce and I have arrived at a time when debate on superannuation and pension schemes is rife. The Consultation on Retirement Protection has been launched, as a way of not only alleviating current poverty, but looking ahead to the ageing population. The ageing population would rightly terrify any good Treasurer. The current dilemma is that policies ought to encourage responsibility and independence for younger generations who have the ability to save for their retirement, while ensuring humane conditions for those who are living in poverty. There is also the political challenge of making any retirement contributory scheme palatable to the general public. Experts so far have suggested convincing the public may be the greatest hurdle. Technically designing a clean system would be a close second.
As this debate is occurring, Bryce and I have already been asked several times about New Zealand’s own Kiwisaver scheme what the lessons may be from that.
The other major portion of those in poverty are the working poor. Again, Bryce and I have arrived at an interesting time, as there is a policy addressing this soon to be launched. It is the Low Income Working Family Allowance, a means-tested subsidy to low income families, with increased benefits based on hours worked.
Finally, there is still much to be done to support women into work. The lack of affordable childcare is thought to be another contributor to poverty, where most low income families only have one working parent because childcare alternatives are too high.
The Hong Kong government is focusing on these issues thanks to data gathered as part of Hong Kong’s official poverty line. The poverty line was established in 2013 and set at 50 percent of the median household income. It is a means of measuring the effectiveness of targeted government policies. The poverty line was also important in establishing exactly who was in poverty, and what kind of policies are either not working to support them, or policies that still need to be initiated.
As mentioned in my previous post, more research normally leads to more questions. Here are some on my mind at the moment:
- Most of the conversation we’ve had so far have been about government policy, or failure of government policy. However, not a lot has yet been said on the strength of civil society and the alternative support groups that can exist within people’s social networks. In the literature, civil and filial ties are said to be important, but we have not yet heard whether these views are still current and realistic.
- While public housing may be of better quality than private housing in the poorest district, the government is struggling to meet demand. To rely on the government for a home seems slow and unsustainable. I’m wondering whether there are any plans by government to either incentivise more quality private sector housing for low income families, or how it expects to meet public demand.
- We have heard varying stories on perceptions of inequality in Hong Kong. Some have said that there is a growing groundswell of disgruntled people who work hard and still cannot get ahead. However, we have also heard that most people accept inequality as a given and have no desire to get politically active about it. I would be interested in hearing more opinions on this in our upcoming meetings.
- In New Zealand, there is no consensus about the best measure of poverty. As Hong Kong is using a relative poverty measure, I would like to know whether there were any objections to the government using this particular measure. Also, to what extent these measures influence, or are expected to influence, public opinion and perceptions. I’ll also note here that more work is being done by academics to determine Hong Kong-specific deprivation measures.