Hong Kong's poverty relief measures a total failure

July 26, 2016 11:36
Residents of public housing estates in remote areas all too often have no access to fresh food nearby. Photo: Internet

In 2013 the government announced that it would set the official poverty line at 50 percent of Hong Kong's median monthly domestic household income. Families earning less than that would be considered living below the poverty line.

During the Poverty Summit at the end of 2015, the administration bragged that due to its untiring efforts and effective measures, the number of people living in poverty in the city had dropped below a million.

The government immediately came under fire from social policy experts who said it didn't take into account crucial factors such as inflation and skyrocketing rent.

Many said poverty in our city has actually worsened.

Dismissing the criticism as cheap shots, the Commission on Poverty suggested in April this year that the government regards public housing as a form of direct subsidies.

For instance, if a family living in a public housing rental flat is paying HK$1,500 for rent each month, and the rate of a residential unit of the same size in the private rental market is HK$3,100, that means the family is receiving HK$1,600 in direct government subsidy a month.

In this way, the commission estimated that a further 300,000 people would be lifted out of poverty by the end of this year.

It appears our government is obsessed with number crunching when it comes to tackling poverty.

The way it defines poverty is completely out of touch with reality. It seems our poverty relief measures have been formulated by a bunch of technocrats who are living in a fantasy world.

To make things worse, the government has completely overlooked another crucial aspect of poverty, namely deprivation of essential commodities and social exclusion.

In many newly developed towns in the New Territories such as Tung Chung and Tin Shui Wei, you will find a lot of recently constructed and fancy public housing estates.

They might be able to provide decent accommodation. The problem is, there is a critical built-in flaw in these new towns: they are often poorly designed without any thorough consideration given to the basic needs of residents in their daily lives.

These new towns are often like man-made remote and isolated islands cut off from the outside world, where the inhabitants are suffering from a complete lack of community facilities.

People here often have to travel a long way from their homes to have access to such facilities in other districts.

In contrast, in old urban districts such as Choi Hung and Ping Shak in East Kowloon, homes might look old, run-down and packed.

However, residents in those districts have all the necessary facilities such as wet markets, neighborhood shops and libraries within walking distance.

Worse still, shopping malls in public housing estates in the new towns are not only scarce, but also owned by the Link REIT or major developers which often have a stranglehold of the market.

Residents are deprived of access to inexpensive and affordable alternatives.

In the United States, there is something known as the “Food Desert”, which refers to remote residential areas where inhabitants have no access to fresh food because there are only chain restaurants or fast-food chains within miles of where they live.

Half way across the world, many grassroots people in Hong Kong are facing the same woe.

What inspired me to look into the deprivation and social exclusion issue in our city is a study carried out by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service a couple of years ago.

The report, Aspects of Poverty Beyond Money, concludes that deprivation and social exclusion are the biggest misery that poor people suffer in Hong Kong, apart from low incomes.

The report also said deprivation and social exclusion, in terms of health care and community facilities in new towns, have deteriorated between 2011 and 2014, indicating that cash allowances alone are not enough to truly improve the lives of poor people and eradicate poverty in this city.

This got me thinking: even if it's true that the government's HK$1,600 “housing welfare transfer” has lifted hundreds of thousands of families out of poverty, all the additional benefits these people have received would be offset not only by inflation but also by deprivation and social exclusion.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 25.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Member of the Shadow Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee, a non-governmental organization