22 April 2019
A file picture from April 2016 shows the view from a communal outdoor kitchen used by tenants living in cubicle flats built in a subdivided "rooftop house" in a building in Kowloon. Photo: AFP
A file picture from April 2016 shows the view from a communal outdoor kitchen used by tenants living in cubicle flats built in a subdivided "rooftop house" in a building in Kowloon. Photo: AFP

More support needed for kids from poor households

Last month, the government released the Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report 2017, which suggested that that the poverty rate in the city stood at 20.1 percent and that the size of the poor population was 1.377 million before policy intervention.

In other words, one in every five Hong Kong citizens is living in poverty, the highest such proportion ever recorded.

Even after recurrent cash policy intervention, the size of the poor population still remained at 1.009 million.

As far as the numbers of poor children aged below 18 years are concerned, their numbers have grown from 172,000 to 177,000, up 0.3 percent from the previous year to 17.5 percent.

Some organizations have estimated that, based on the monthly median household income figures in the city released by the Census and Statistics Department, the poverty rate among children in Hong Kong hit 22.5 percent in 2017, which means one in every five children is living in poverty.

A number of overseas studies have pointed out that poverty has proven to have profoundly negative implications for children when it comes to their physical and mental health, social life and learning.

For example, in the United Kingdom, where the numbers of children living in poverty have seen substantial growth in recent years, studies have found that newborn babies of poor families are on average 200 grams lighter than those born to affluent families.

In the meantime, the studies also suggest that poor infants usually suffer a higher risk of dying from acute diseases. At present, the UK has the highest death rate among the population aged under five across entire Europe.

Studies have also found that malnutrition among poor children is very likely to take a significant toll on their physical growth, dental health, brain development, etc.

Meanwhile, cramped living conditions are likely to affect the respiratory health of children, and increase their risks of having asthma or getting hurt as a result of accidents.

Moreover, poor children are often more prone to mental health problems such as anxiety and stress, and poverty can also affect their cognitive abilities, social life, learning and linguistic proficiency, the studies said.

Now let’s get back to Hong Kong. According to the findings of quite a number of surveys carried out by various organizations, nearly 90 percent of the children from low-income families suffer malnutrition.

And some organizations have found that 23.5 percent of the families that are recipients under the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) scheme said they often cannot afford to provide three meals for their kids every day.

Moreover, 57.5 percent of these CSSA families said they lack adequate winter clothing, while 76.2 percent said they are unable to provide any after-school tutorial class for their children.

When it comes to psychological health, there are relatively few poor children who think they are very happy persons.

Worse still, 14.3 percent of poor children have thought of suicide, as compared to less than 10 percent among average kids.

For school children living in sub-divided flats, their spinal health is affected, mainly because of the situation where their flats are so small and cramped that they often have to do their homework on chairs and desks, if they have any at all, of insufficient height on a daily basis.

And because of poor ventilation and hygiene, poor children living in sub-divided flats are often more susceptible to nasal allergy.

At the same time, due to their parents’ low income, poor children suffering from intellectual disabilities like speech and learning impediments can only afford to seek treatment from public healthcare services, and not private rehabilitation services.

However, since the average waiting time for public healthcare services in the city is often very long, many of these children inevitably miss the “golden period” of receiving therapies.

As for learning, many low-income parents can hardly pay for their children’s extra-curricular activities in school and homework tutorials, thereby substantially undermining the learning opportunities of the kids and giving rise to inferiority complex among them.

In a wealthy society such as ours that boasts of huge government fiscal reserves, Hong Kong just shouldn’t allow these issues to happen.

Given the problem, I strongly expect the Commission on Poverty to come up with specific strategies to address the issues and provide support for poor children in various aspects such as their health, learning and everyday life needs.

The government should step up efforts at providing more resources for these children to make sure that they can grow up in a satisfactory and healthy environment.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 12

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative councilor and head of nursing and health studies in the Open University of Hong Kong

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