Monday 21 October 2013

Poor in Singapore: Handouts top $100 million mark in FY2012

Biggest leap in social assistance help was in short-term payouts, which grew to $24.5 million
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 20 Oct 2013

Social assistance payments to the poor crossed the $100 million mark for the first time to reach $102.4 million in the last financial year ending in March.

That was a nearly 45 per cent jump from the previous year and more than double the $44.5 million given out five years ago.

The money came from the Community Care (ComCare) Endowment Fund, set up by the Government in 2005 to help needy families get back on their feet. Overall, 33,266 families and individuals were helped last year, up from 19,072 five years ago.

ComCare provides three broad types of assistance: long-term help, largely for the elderly poor; medium- and shorter-term help for those facing crises, such as illness or retrenchment; and childcare, kindergarten and infant care subsidies for children.

The biggest jump last year was in short-term payouts, which doubled to $24.5 million in a single year, said the latest ComCare annual report FY2012. Medium-term assistance rose from $10.5 million to $17.4 million.

The largest chunk - nearly $45 million - went to children, paying for infant care and pre-school fees.

Meanwhile, spending on long-term help remained relatively stable at $15.6 million.

The jump in short-term help was largely because of slower economic growth and more generous eligibility criteria implemented last year, said a spokesman for the Ministry of Social and Family Development, which oversees ComCare.

The income ceiling for short- and medium-term assistance was raised to $1,700 from $1,500 in April last year. Larger families became eligible too, as the ministry looked at household income divided by the number of people in the family and introduced a per-capita income criterion of up to $550.

"These will ensure that genuinely needy Singaporean families will be assisted if they need help," it said.

Larger families also became eligible for more kindergarten subsidies last year, with a new rule enabling those with per capita incomes of up to $875 per month to get help.

It has also become easier to get help, say those working with the poor.

In addition to community development councils and grassroots organisations, family service centres were allowed to hand out ComCare funds last year, said the general manager of the Social Service Office at Kreta Ayer, Mr Jai Prakash Ramalingam.

"When a person in need approaches a help centre, more organisations can now give out short-term aid immediately, even as we investigate the merits of the application and verify documents on whether a family needs financial assistance in the longer term," he said.

Executive director Choo Jin Kiat, of O'Joy Care Services, welcomed news of greater help for the poor, but said challenges remain. Many older people still find it hard to get jobs and their wages are still depressed.

"Apart from the Government, employers, donors and citizens must all have a heart and play a part in helping the poor," he said.

Singapore must define poverty, say experts
At what point are you considered poor in Singapore? The Sunday Times finds out it is not all that clear-cut.
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 20 Oct 2013

A team of researchers and poverty experts at the Singapore Management University (SMU) says it is time Singapore joined other developed nations in officially defining and measuring poverty.

Doing so could lead to greater public support for efforts to help vulnerable communities, they say in a paper from the Lien Centre for Social Innovation.

"Many Singaporeans may not be aware of the scale and depth of poverty in Singapore," said poverty expert John Donaldson from SMU's School of Social Sciences, one of the key collaborators on the paper. "We hope our research can help people to understand the nature of the problem, its causes and possible solutions."

The paper, to be officially released next month, reviews the limited local research done here and discusses the merits and drawbacks of various global poverty measures.

Aside from Associate Professor Donaldson, the authors include poverty expert Sanushka Mudaliar from the Lien Centre and economist Yeoh Lam Keong from the Institute of Policy Studies at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

They note that the living conditions and incomes of the poorest among the resident population here do not reach the levels of destitution seen in developing countries, but Singapore still needs to "reassess the way in which poverty is acknowledged, defined and addressed".

Prof Donaldson told The Sunday Times that the lack of comprehensive publicly available information is "an obstacle to informed discussion on the complex issues Singapore faces in its efforts to eliminate poverty".

For instance, while there are 105,000 households in the bottom 10 per cent of the income scale - the working poor - there is no readily available information on the number of retiree and unemployed households that are struggling financially. "We wish we had more such data," said Prof Donaldson.

Qualitative data is required too. In the second phase of the research next year, the team plans to interview poor people to assess their needs.

Focus group discussions with those working with the poor tossed up some disturbing stories - such as those of intergenerational poverty. "We were told, for example, that there are family service centres that are now serving the children of their clients from 20 years ago," said Prof Donaldson.

Mr Yeoh said that as poverty in Singapore is relatively unseen, it tends to be an under-addressed problem. "We hope that by measuring poverty properly, we can help change that," he said.

Broadly speaking, a poverty line specifies the minimum levels of income needed to pay for the basic necessities in life in any country or region.

Last month, Hong Kong joined a host of developed economies in defining its poverty line for the first time, setting it at half the median household income, excluding tax and welfare transfers. That put 1.3 million people - roughly a fifth of the population - below the poverty line.

Although Singapore has been consistently among the wealthiest countries in the world over the past 10 years - measured by per capita gross domestic product - inequality has risen sharply at the same time, say the authors.

Together with Hong Kong, Singapore now has one of the highest levels of inequality in the developed world. Growing inequality here has been compounded by "low and falling real wages of the bottom 20 per cent of employed residents", the paper added.

Calling attention to the issue

The publication of the Lien Centre paper coincides with tomorrow's launch of the first public awareness campaign on poverty, called Singaporeans Against Poverty, initiated by Caritas Singapore, the social service arm of the Catholic Church.

Nominated Member of Parliament Laurence Lien, who is helming the Caritas campaign and is on the Lien Centre board, believes that having an official poverty line will help focus attention on the degree of poverty here and track how it is tackled.

"However, we should also recognise that poverty is a complex issue. Different poverty thresholds for households with different circumstances would be needed," he said.

Better information and data on the poor will also help spur philanthropy, said the chief executive of the Community Foundation of Singapore (CFS), Ms Catherine Loh, who helps private donors decide where to park their charity dollars.

Donors, she said, always ask where, exactly, are the people in need. "Some concrete data will complement the emotional images shown by charities when they appeal for donations," said Ms Loh, whose foundation has helped raise more than $50 million in donations since it was set up in September 2008.

"Most importantly, CFS will be able to use the information to better evaluate and assess the programmes run by charities and be able to channel resources to areas where they are needed most."

The need to measure poverty has also found supporters among social service professionals such as Ms Jean Koh who deal daily with the poor. The acting centre manager at Care Corner Family Service Centre counted the working poor and sole breadwinners with large families as key groups to watch out for.

"Knowing where to draw the line on absolute poverty, for instance, will allow us to critically examine if there are still citizens who are falling below the minimum standards of living in spite of various assistance schemes available."


Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng, who is chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Social and Family Development, shares his views on the poor in Singapore.

Q: Is there a need to define the poverty line and for the Government to make public the number of poor in Singapore?

I think it is not clear whether having a poverty line is effective in aiding poverty alleviation, from the experience of countries that have established such benchmarks.

Like many Singaporeans, I have been to the United States, Britain, Hong Kong and Japan and I can say that in many of these places, I do see more poor people on the streets and this is a less common sight in Singapore.

I think we should not classify people as 'poor' or 'needy' based on their income as this would oversimplify the complex issues they might face. For example, someone with an income level greater than the set poverty line might still require assistance - they may, for example, have a sick dependant. At the same time, we should not assume that everyone who falls below the poverty line requires or wants assistance, as they might have other avenues of support, such as assets, family or community support.

Thus far, in Singapore, we have been using a flexible needs-based approach to identify and help those who need assistance. Appropriate assistance is rendered based on their specific needs.

We should continue to target those who need help the most and reinforce individual effort and responsibility.

Q: Despite more programmes for the poor, do you believe some groups are falling through the cracks? If so, who and how can they be helped more?

I am sure there may be some cases that fall through the cracks. But these should be the rare exceptions and, when they come to our notice, we will certainly and very quickly act on them.

As the Prime Minister mentioned in his National Day Rally speech, Singapore is built on three pillars - the individual, the community and the government.

The Government must and will continue to review its policies and schemes to best assist the needy and poor in our society. But the Government cannot know everything, be everywhere and fill every gap. The community, being closer to the ground, is well-placed to assist the needy in its midst.

Social service agencies, community organisations and volunteer groups can do even more to help Singaporeans in need. Corporations can also collaborate on creative ways to help the needy.

Social enterprises and cooperatives too have important roles to play in helping the less advantaged. Individuals can also do more through watching out for neighbours, friends and family who need support.

Each of us can do our part.


Getting by on grants and part-time work

Nebisha Begam's one-room rental flat in Chai Chee is devoid of furniture save for a broken table and dresser, a ragged ironing board and two stained plastic chairs.

"We threw away our mattresses," she said sheepishly. "There were too many bedbugs."

Till early last year, the 40-year-old single mother was managing on her own with a full-time job as a security guard. The $1,600 she earned monthly was enough to support her two sons, Aravin Daniel Raj, 14, and Suriya Ganesh, 12.

With her Central Provident Fund savings and a grant from the Government, she had even bought a two-room Housing Board flat, which will be ready next year.

However, severe leg pains - diagnosed as acute osteoarthritis - caused her to miss days of work and she had to quit her job early this year. In March, after knee surgery, she was given medical leave for a year.

The community development council (CDC) gave her $750 per month in assistance and paid her rental and utilities bill for six months.

Last month, however, the CDC reduced the cash grant to $350, since she was well enough to work part-time. The Singapore Indian Association helps with another $165. She cannot depend on relatives. Her former husband is in jail and her three siblings have their own families.

To supplement her income, she takes on work as a relief security guard at $60 for a 12-hour shift, despite being on long-term medical leave. But her leg problem has flared up again and she can work only one or two days a week.

"I don't have a choice as my bank account is nearly empty," she said when The Sunday Times dropped in unannounced at her flat earlier this month.

She had cooked a watery curry with a couple of pieces of chicken for dinner. There were no vegetables. And the battered old fridge was empty except for a packet of frozen chicken. Her bank book had $1.02 in it.

"I will get $60 soon because I worked last night," she said. "So I can buy more food."

Her sons, both cheerful, articulate and well behaved, get free schooling, uniforms and pocket money.

But they long for possessions that other kids take for granted.

When she was working full-time, she bought her older son a second-hand Samsung touchscreen phone for $100. It was a gift because he had passed his Primary School Leaving Examination.

Now, younger son Suriya is hankering for his own phone. "No one in class has a button-phone any more," he said.

His mother fretted and said: "What can I do? Where do I get another phone? If my legs hurt too much, I don't even know whether we will have enough to eat."


He works 20 hours a day to feed family of 8

Hamdan Ahmad, 45, works nearly round the clock in two jobs to take home a combined pay of around $2,170 a month, barely enough to support his family of eight.

From 8.30am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, and for half a day every Saturday, he works as a pest control technician, earning $970, excluding his Central Provident Fund contribution.

He returns home by 5.30pm each day to take a quick nap and shower, and have his only meal.

By 7.15pm, he is out again, making a half-hour bus journey from his two-room rental flat in Dover to his second workplace at Lucky Plaza in Orchard Road.

This job - as a security guard on night shift - nets him another $1,200, excluding CPF.

When his 12-hour shift ends at 8am, he takes a quick shower, changes at the workplace and heads back to his day job.

Sometimes, on Sundays when he is off, he works another 12-hour shift as a freelance security guard for $70.

The father of six children aged between five and 13 says he works every chance he can get. Like many low-wage workers, he has seen his wages fall. At one point his take-home pay from the pest control job was around $1,200.

His routine comes at great cost, says his wife, Madam Titiek Lilah, 40. "Because he does not get enough sleep, he keeps falling sick. And the children don't get to see him at all."

He gets to sleep during a three-hour break in his 12-hour night-shift job.

Madam Lilah used to work the graveyard shift in a factory when her three older children were toddlers and Mr Hamdan had only one job.

But one morning on returning from work, she fell into a deep sleep without cooking lunch.

"The kids could not wake me up, ended up eating raw hot dogs and had to be taken to hospital," she recalled. "After that we thought it's best that he works and I stay at home."

The family is waiting for a new two-room Housing Board flat next year, paid for by his and his wife's CPF savings.

But some pet peeves remain. Mr Hamdan is upset that he does not qualify for the Workfare Income Supplement which would give him an additional $2,000 per year, most of it in CPF.

The reason is that his combined salary is higher than the $1,900 Workfare income ceiling.

"I feel sad that despite working hard on low pay, I don't get Workfare," he said. "This is unfair."


Men with little family support find it tough

Lee Yong Hong, 62, has asthma and other chronic lung problems. But throughout the haze in June this year, he slept out in the open along a corridor near his one-room Housing Board rental flat.

His wife had taken out a personal protection order against him. He claims he spilled hot coffee on her accidentally during a heated argument. She says it was deliberate.

The order has lapsed, but he has still not been allowed to return home. As he settled down for the night one evening last week, pulling out an old folding chair, he said: "I don't have much choice."

The father of a grown-up son receives a cash grant of $300 from the Community Development Council (CDC), which he tops up by working as a rag and bone man.

Earlier this year, he went to a seniors care centre run by NTUC Eldercare near his Lengkok Bahru block looking for food. Centre supervisor Chai Chee Mei linked him with another charity which provides the service.

"If it wasn't for the free food, I would not have enough to eat," he said.

Older divorced men or those like Mr Lee, who are estranged from their families, form a big part of the elderly poor, said Ms Chai.

Her clients include several older men who are unable to work but find it difficult to get assistance because they have children.

Mr Tung Choy Ngon, 66, was living on instant noodles until he began getting free food too.

The former welder, who lost his right arm in a workplace accident in the 1960s, lost his part-time job as a restaurant cleaner early this year because of worsening eyesight.

The father of four let on in Mandarin that he was reluctant to apply for CDC aid as he knew the council would contact his children. "I do not want to bother them," he said.

So there have been days when he lived in the dark, unable to pay the electricity bill.

After being convinced to apply, the CDC now gives him $200 in cash and pays for his rent, conservancy and utilities.

He also gets free food on weekdays and rations. Three of his children - roped in by the CDC - give him $50 each.

Still, what he gets each month is less than the $450 available to someone on public assistance. He lives largely from hand to mouth. In August, before the CDC aid came through, his bank account was down to just $1.

But Mr Tung is not unhappy. "There were times when I had instant noodles for Chinese New Year," he says. "Things have improved since then."


10 kids share a living room at bedtime

For nearly two years, divorcee Nor and her four children have been staying at her younger sister's two-room rental flat in Whampoa.

The factory worker, who earns about $800 a month after Central Provident Fund (CPF) deductions, declined to have her full name published. Her 32-year-old sister, also a factory worker, is a divorced mother of six who remarried recently.

Their 10 children, aged between seven and 15, sleep in the living room. Madam Nor, 34, who works the night shift, sleeps with the children on her nights off. Two of the older boys declined to be photographed. The only bedroom is used by her sister's new husband.

Madam Nor's application for a subsidised rental flat was rejected because she has around $50,000 in CPF savings and, with a loan, can buy a two-room HDB flat.

But she fears she may lose her job as her factory is set for a change in management early next year, and she says it has already begun retrenching workers.

"What's the point of taking a loan if I can't repay it next year?" she asked. She has appealed to the HDB again for a rental flat.

The board told The Sunday Times it is reviewing her case. "We will consider how best we can help her family, including offering them temporary housing," a spokesman said.

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