Monday, 28 January 2013

Welcome to godPAPa's budding welfare state

Connect the dots and you get a picture of a society's changing family policy
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Sunday Times, 27 Jan 2013

Amid all the entertainment and excitement of the Punggol East by-election - Singapore's fourth election in two years - it's easy to miss the significance of the moves to promote marriage and parenthood.

Over the past week, a slew of measures were announced: Couples with babies will get $2,000 more in cash bonuses. Couples with children get priority for public housing. New fathers get state-funded paternity leave.

Health insurance for children will be expanded to include medical conditions from birth.

Childcare subsidies for families earning up to $7,500 will go up on a sliding scale, so that those earning $2,500 and below get 99 per cent of fees covered and pay around $3 a month to enrol their children in childcare.

Each of these policies marks a significant change in itself. And if you connect the dots made up by the patchwork of measures, the picture you get is of a society in the midst of a complete overhaul on how it views and supports the family. Singapore's social policy is undergoing a paradigm shift.

And the state, far from being a distant rich relative not lifting a finger to help beleaguered families, is now stepping in as godparent to ease the financial burdens of middle-income families.

The Government doesn't go around trumpeting this shift. Nor will it use that much-dreaded term, the welfare state. But in substance, Singapore's family policy is inching quietly leftwards, closer to that of Western welfare states in the way it extends the social safety net to cover middle-income families.

A capitalist society's approach to family welfare is straightforward: give workers a job, pay them enough to fend for themselves. The individual and family take care of their sick and old. This was Singapore in the 60s.

A residual or minimalist welfare state adds some protection: subsistence-level benefits for the very sick and very old who can't work and have no family to care for them. This was Singapore in the 70s to the 80s.

Singapore added more layers of protection in the late 80 and 90s. notably the pooling of health risks via MediShield and introducing three to six months' cash handouts for the jobless after the Asian financial crisis.

In the last few years, Singapore's social policy has undergone a more fundamental shift.

The Workfare Income Supplement was groundbreaking for introducing - and then institutionalising - the notion that even an able-bodied person with a job might need state support to augment his wages.

Thus began the shift towards a more pervasive social safety net covering not only the old and indigent but also the middle income, the young and the able-bodied.

Last year's move to extend subsidies for elder care and nursing homes to households with per capita incomes up to $2,200 was the next big shift. That brought two-thirds of families within the net. This established the principle that family subsidies are no longer just for the lower-income. It will become accepted - and expected - that the state will provide financial support for the majority of families caring for the aged sick.

Last week's slew of subsidies expands that approach to cover families with children. The Government is paying for paternity leave, in effect reimbursing employers who may otherwise be reluctant to expand maternity or paternity benefits.

In the past, families bore the risk and expense of giving birth to a sick child, carrying the financial burden over the lifetime of the child.

Now, the baby gets automatically enrolled into a health insurance plan that covers conditions from birth. Risk is thus socialised and pooled, not left to individual families.

What if a family can't afford to pay $400 in childcare centre fees each month? Godpapa says: Here's $105 million a year to top up the subsidy so families earning below $7,500 pay only $3 to $215 in fees a month.

Pre-school is becoming nearly as cheap as primary and secondary school - great news for social mobility.

The measures shift some of the risks and costs of raising children from individual parents to the community, and to the state.

What next?

It should now do more for the middle-aged chronic sick and those with pre-existing medical conditions who otherwise face financial distress.

Many in this age group face old age with zero or inadequate health insurance. They may be covered by existing employers' health plans, but these stop when you quit or retire - and no new insurer will cover you. (I know, because as a middle-aged cancer survivor, I belong to this group.)

Should a major illness strike, you'll be left dependent on your basic MediShield, Medisave, retirement savings. And after that? Sell your home, depend on charity or declare bankruptcy.

The cost of raising children is increasingly being pooled with society and the state. That includes the cost of fertility treatments, childbearing-related hospitalisation, parental leave, child health insurance, education from pre-school to tertiary.

The usual justification for taxes to pay for investment in children is to say that children are a public good: They form the future generation of taxpayers who will keep the economy - and the future welfare state - humming.

But this argument breaks down if the benefits of raising children remain private, and children support only their own biological parents. Singaporeans also have individual retirement accounts in the Central Provident Fund, so are not dependent on future generations for pensions.

So the only way to get buy-in for godpapa's creeping welfare state is to assure those of us without children that while we help bear the costs of raising other people's children today, we will be rewarded in old age when today's babies become taxpayers and return the favour by funding our retirement and health-care needs in future.

If my taxes today fund $2 billion a year for 30-year-old Mr Tan and Mrs Tan and their baby, I want a guarantee that the Tans and Baby will be paying taxes to fund, say, my nursing home place, in 25 years' time.

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