Monday, 24 April 2017

Growing number of young Singaporeans in need, relying on Government handouts

Growing number of them relying on handouts - accounting for one in five recipients of ComCare; rise of gig economy may worsen situation
By Janice Tai and Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 23 Apr 2017

Three months ago, Ms Chloe Lin (not her real name) splurged on a big-ticket item. It was her daughter's 11th birthday.

Ms Lin, 33, bought a mango vanilla cake decorated with characters from the movie Frozen. It cost her $50 - one-seventh of the $360 she got a month from ComCare, Singapore's social aid scheme for the poor and needy.

But for Ms Lin, it was worth it. "It's her favourite cartoon and flavour," she said simply.

Having dropped out of school in Secondary 2, Ms Lin struggles to hold on to a job. Her longest stint was as a property telemarketer from 2010 to 2013, earning $7 an hour. But when the sector slowed, she was let go. Twice divorced, she now lives in a one-room rental flat in Ang Mo Kio with her daughter.

Last year, Ms Lin applied for and received ComCare help. For nine months, the monthly stipend was all the pair had to live on.

Ms Lin is among a growing number of young Singaporeans who are in need and having to rely on the Government for handouts.

Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) data shows that 5,644 young households - with applicants aged below 35, the official definition of youth - received ComCare's short- to medium-term financial aid in the financial year of 2015.

This is a 40 per cent jump from the 4,016 young households who got such ComCare aid in 2012 - the earliest year that age-segregated data was made public. By contrast, the number of older households whose applicants are aged 35 to 59 went up less - by 34.9 per cent.

Over the years, the Government has become more generous in administering ComCare, bumping up cases. Families now get help when they have a monthly household income of $1,900 or less, or a per capita income of under $650, among other criteria.

But what experts say is troubling is that young Singaporeans account for one in five recipients - a proportion that has not budged despite government efforts such as student care and skills-upgrading subsidies.

It is also just a shade under the share that older Singaporeans aged 60 and above form (these do not include those who get long-term help due to illnesses or disabilities).

The numbers also surprised Ms Rachel Lee, a principal social worker at Fei Yue Family Service Centre. The social worker has seen more younger families seeking help at the centre, but was taken aback when told that the proportion is similar to those 60 and older.

"They may not be the majority but if we don't help these young families break out of the vicious circle, they can get trapped in it, especially those with dependants," she said.

Another set of data also suggests that the problem of poverty among young Singaporeans can be quite intractable. More so than other age groups, they seem more stubbornly stuck with low wages.

Manpower Ministry data shows that last year, there were fewer employed residents aged 15 and above earning a gross monthly income of $1,000 and less, compared to 2015. However, those aged 25 to 34 registered the smallest percentage point drop, meaning that younger workers are slower in breaking out of this low-income bracket compared to other age groups.

There are 41,500 people aged between 15 and 34 who earn under $1,000 a month as of last June.

There are two reasons why some young Singaporeans are in difficulties, say those interviewed.

One is that some struggle to move out of the poverty trap - they are either born into poverty and remain mired in it, or are stuck in jobs that just do not pay enough.

Mr Muhd Alfian K., 30, who has O-level qualifications, is one of them. A crane operator, his life revolves around hitting a target of loading and unloading at least 52 containers within a 12-hour shift. His salary will then be bumped up to $2,000.

This translates into a take-home pay of $1,600 for his family of five.

His wife Irah Nurshahrani, 26, tried to help by taking on jobs such as a hotel housekeeper and a petrol station cashier. But she has had to move from job to job after taking too many days off to care for their children, aged one, two and three. "He works long hours and I try to get work too but it is hard and the money is not enough."

They received $100 in ComCare help for three months last year.

Two, more young Singaporeans are poor because more are now unemployed.

The jobless rate for those below 30 years old has risen over the years and was at 5 per cent last year, double that of other age groups.

An MSF spokesman explained why the young seek assistance: "Some are unable to secure employment due to caregiving needs for young dependants and may require financial assistance in the interim. There are others who might be facing family issues such as divorce, incarceration or violence and require assistance while their family stabilises as they are unable to work."

Looking into the future, the picture is muddied by the rise of the gig economy, displacing traditional jobs. For now, some young workers - tech-savvy and physically fit - are riding the wave and seeing their incomes rise. But their long-term financial health is far from certain.

The authorities worry about the 200,000 gig economy workers here because many lack statutory protections and benefits, including CPF contributions. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said last year that they face risks such as wage instability and not having enough for retirement.

Warned labour economist Hui Weng Tat: "The gig economy is going to aggravate the social and job-related causes of poverty. Retrenchment due to job obsolescence and job disappearance will increase."

So what is to be done?

Ensure they remain employed, and help them remain employable, said labour economist Randolph Tan, a Nominated MP. Measures such as job placement help and re-skilling need to be significantly stepped up, said Singapore Management University's law don Eugene Tan.

To better help those already in a rut, some social workers will soon be trained to help low-income families better manage their finances.

Meanwhile, those in the gig economy should get a hand to build up their CPF savings, such as incentives for voluntary top-up, say some such as Dr Tan Wu Meng, an MP for Jurong GRC.

Above all, experts and social workers said there should be urgency in tackling the issues faced by Singapore's young and working poor. Otherwise, warned Prof Randolph Tan: "We could see the beginnings of a social catastrophe."

Additional reporting by Kok Xing Hui

Dispatch rider, 23, plies the roads with a prayer and a dream
By Janice Tai, The Sunday Times, 23 Apr 2017

Friends of Mr Fitri Ismail used to tease him for being a delivery boy.

"Last time, they liked to disturb me. They'd say, 'See, I work in a cafe and I (am) already a manager but you are still doing deliveries'," said the 23-year-old.

But Mr Ismail is having the last laugh - for now, at least.

For the past year, he has been pulling in $3,000 to $4,000 a month as a Deliveroo delivery rider, more than what some of his peers earn in their office or F&B jobs.

"It's funny to see those friends who used to poke fun at me now joining as dispatch riders too," said Mr Ismail, who used to earn $1,200 as a pizza deliveryman after Central Provident Fund (CPF) deductions of about $400.

Besides the good take-home pay, Mr Ismail enjoys his job's flexible hours, which allow him to time his days off with his father's medical appointments.

But the gig economy job comes with the downsides that many have warned about.

As a freelancer, Mr Ismail does not get the benefits that an employee has. There are no employer's CPF contribution, medical benefits, paid annual leave or work injury compensation.

"My mum worries about me not having funds in my CPF so I give her about $200 every month to top up my account and earn the interest there," said Mr Ismail.

He has a total of $4,000 in his CPF account now - which he knows will not go far for needs such as buying a flat or medical costs.

So, he tries to make sure he squirrels away $1,800 a month as savings. Currently, he has about $10,000 in the bank.

He wants to put aside $150,000 by the time he hits his 40s. Then, he hopes, he can quit being a dispatch rider and start his own F&B and delivery business with friends.

"I only have a certificate from ITE so it's hard to find other jobs. I tried applying to be a gym instructor, front-line police officer and technician but was rejected," he said.


Mr Ismail is one of 200,000 freelancers in Singapore, a group of workers that is expected to grow as the gig economy gains traction.

While it has meant better take-home pay for some such as Mr Ismail, the Government and economists alike worry about their long- term financial health.

Another concern is the fact that the job is physically demanding and can be risky.

Mr Ismail plies the roads from 11.15am to 11.15pm, four or five days a week. He pushes himself to make two to three deliveries an hour in the Orchard area where he is based. That brings his hourly wage to an average of about $21. On top of his $8.50 an hour pay, he earns $4 on weekdays and $6 on weekends for every delivery.

He has made up to 40 deliveries a day - a record among Deliveroo riders, according to Mr Ismail.

His own biggest worry is getting injured in an accident on the road. So far, he has only had one minor run-in with a speeding car, which dented the back of his red and black Honda Wave motorbike.

He knows that having a body fit enough for work is his only financial bulwark for now. Every day, as he straddles his vehicle and revs up its engine, he spends an extra five seconds mumbling a silent prayer.

"God, please protect me on the roads and let me live another day."

Mind the gaps: More data can make a difference
By Janice Tai, The Sunday Times, 23 Apr 2017

Go get a job.

How often have you heard that refrain used on people struggling?

But for many young people here, statistics suggest that having a job is no guarantee of a crawl out of poverty. This mirrors a pattern observed recently in developed countries such as Britain and Italy.

As of June last year, there are 41,500 people who are aged between 15 and 34 who have a gross monthly income (excluding employer Central Provident Fund contribution) of below $1,000.

In Singapore, a youth is defined as anyone between the ages of 15 and 35.

Across all age groups, the number of people drawing such low pay has fallen, according to the annual Labour Force in Singapore reports released by the Manpower Ministry.

While the problem appears to be shrinking, those aged 25 to 34 showed the smallest percentage point drop, meaning that younger workers are slower in breaking out of this low-income bracket compared to other age groups.

So while they have a job, a number of them struggle to support themselves and their families.

Data from ComCare - a national social assistance programme for the low-income - also shows that more than a quarter of short- to medium-term assistance applicants in the financial year of 2015 were getting aid even though they were employed.

While the data clearly signals an issue, there are gaps in public information that could help us understand what contributes to poverty entrenching itself with the young. For instance, why do some young people continue to pull in meagre wages? Why do some with jobs still require financial assistance? A better understanding of the circumstances and obstacles the young and poor face will allow for resources and intervention to be more targeted.

Depending on the root causes, programmes can be tailor-made, whether it is to support them in re-skilling or upgrading their skills to get better jobs and higher wages.

Or perhaps the issue is a structural one and there may be a need to "strengthen Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model further", said Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin previously.

For a start, it will be useful to track the length of time that people are on welfare aid.

The results should also be published to help policymakers and social workers understand the effect various initiatives have on weaning young people, and their families, off ComCare.

While some families start on "short term" help, they appear to end up being dependent for years.

Again, a clear understanding of why they find themselves in that situation will help ensure that the majority of needy families and individuals graduate out of the short- to medium-term financial assistance scheme instead of moving on to the long-term public assistance scheme.

Beyond income data, another useful tool to understand the young and poor situation in Singapore is the take-up rate of public rental housing, meant for low-income families, by this group.

But here, too, there are more questions. How long do young people live in these rental flats? Were their parents public rental housing tenants, too?

Tracking these data will help in understanding the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Early intervention can ensure that young individuals and families do not get mired in poverty, especially in the productive phase of their lives.

At present, we can only draw an inference of the gravity of the problem.

For instance, the Housing Board told The Sunday Times that nearly 3,000 rental tenants have progressed to first-time home ownership in the past five years. Given that there are 56,000 rental units today, this is but a small fraction. Does this mean that many of the rental flat residents end up living there for years and have a slim chance of owning their own homes?

Some people have blamed the rise of the gig economy - where conventional jobs are replaced by freelance, on-demand "gigs", or short-term projects - for depressing wages and exploiting the young as such workers may not receive the usual medical and leave benefits and CPF contributions that come with full-time work.

Again, there are questions.

With the rise of the gig economy, what is the proportion of young Singaporeans not contributing to CPF? Have their numbers gone up over the years? Of those who do contribute, are those amounts enough to see them through their golden years?

Age-centric data can shed light on how various segments of the population are faring.

With more precise information, we will be better able to detect demographic shifts in profiles of the poor, gauge the effectiveness of existing help schemes, pinpoint new areas of need and channel public funds and charity dollars to those who need them the most.

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