Thursday 24 October 2013

Why setting a poverty line may not be helpful: Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing

Broader definition of poverty reflects better the complexity of issues
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 23 Oct 2013

SINGAPORE is not considering having an official poverty line, as it would not fully reflect the severity and complexity of issues faced by the poor, and may also lead to those above the line missing out on assistance.

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing made these points on Monday, amid renewed calls for Singapore to look into having one after Hong Kong set an official poverty line last month.

In a written parliamentary reply, he said the Government's approach is to use broad definitions for the groups it seeks to help, set clear criteria to identify and assess those in need, and come up with tailored schemes.

They were the Government's first comments on the issue since Hong Kong's policy change on Sept 30.

Mr Chan said a poverty line would also miss out other issues that poor families face. These include ill health, lack of housing and weak family relationships.

Replying to questions by Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong and Nominated MP Laurence Lien, Mr Chan said Singapore's assessment process for providing help to those in need is "rigorous but also flexible" to cater to the genuinely needy.

This means that those who do not meet certain criteria in help programmes are also able to receive assistance.

The Government also conducts regular reviews to ensure that ComCare assistance remains relevant to the low-income and vulnerable, he said.

ComCare is social assistance provided to low-income families.

Mr Chan said different nations tailor their methods to identify and help their needy according to their circumstances, and other developed ones such as New Zealand and Canada also do not subscribe to official poverty lines.

Hong Kong set its poverty line at half the median household income level according to household size, with about 1.3 million, or a fifth of its population, living under it. So the poverty line for a four-person household is HK$14,300 (S$2,300).

Like Singapore, Hong Kong is grappling with high levels of income inequality. Its Gini co-efficient, a commonly-used measure of income inequality, is 0.53, compared with Singapore's 0.47. The closer the number is to 1, the higher the inequality.

Mr Yee also asked what the Government's internal measure of neediness was when it distributed N95 masks to 200,000 needy households in June during the haze.

Mr Chan said that the one million masks were given to households with a per-capita income below $900.

Their income was verified through their membership in the Community Health Assist Scheme Blue Scheme or by self-declaration of income at the community clubs.

Tackle poverty, don't fixate on benchmark

MR TIMOTHY Lim Wei Chong argues that setting a poverty line will increase awareness of income inequality and spur action from the state and community ("Poverty line sets clear benchmark for all"; yesterday).

But he also concedes that defining the poverty line will "inevitably result in groups on the margins losing out".

I believe the Government's current approach of addressing various facets of poverty - deprivation along the lines of education and health care - is more effective.

In considering this issue, it is important to not conflate measuring poverty and defining the poverty line.

Poverty measurement entails objectively looking at how Singaporeans fare on various indicators.

Data on the education levels and wages of Singaporeans are examples. Such measurements will enable the public to better understand the problem of poverty in Singapore. A poverty line is unnecessary.

When a poverty line is defined, a target is set simply based on an indicator taken to be more important.

A case in point is Hong Kong's poverty line, which is pegged at half of the median wage.

Certainly, there are other factors which influence whether citizens are deprived of access to basic necessities, yet they are excluded, leading to a distorted view of poverty.

When the poverty line is fixed, it is likely that the state and public will be fixated on it.

Certainly, setting targets to alleviate poverty is important, but I believe it is more effective to set specific goals based on a broad range of metrics rather than pursue a general goal.

This is the Government's current approach. It is pushing for higher wages for low-wage workers, strengthening the social safety net and ensuring that education and health care are available to all. Such a multi-pronged approach will yield better results.

Perhaps the problem of poverty and the progress made in resolving it are less obvious due to the fragmented approach in addressing it.

To raise public awareness, the Government could perhaps release a comprehensive report regularly on the state of the underprivileged, citing key indicators such as wages, access to education and affordability of essential goods.

Becoming more aware of any problem is an important first step.

Specifying the poverty line gives one the illusion of grasping and addressing the complex problem.

It is the nuanced measurement of the poverty, combined with specific targets and precise action, which will be most effective in reducing it.

We need to address poverty, not the shadow of poverty.

Muthhukumar Palaniyapan
ST Forum, 26 Oct 2013

Poverty line sets clear benchmark for all

MINISTER for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said in a parliamentary reply that a poverty line could be counter-productive ("Why setting a poverty line may not be helpful: Minister"; Wednesday).

He explained that people at the fringe of any poverty line will always be disadvantaged since "genuinely needy citizens outside the poverty lines are excluded".

According to him, poverty is a multi-dimensional issue that goes far beyond any single monetary standard. While this is true, it does not make a case against setting a relative poverty line.

There are many global metrics formulated to comprehensively measure several aspects of poverty. They include the Human Poverty Index-2 for developed countries. It not only takes into account monetary wealth, but also aspects like health, education levels and household size.

Such a poverty line would allow us to better identify households in our community with the greatest need. We would no longer have to draw arbitrary lines in the sand according to differing situations.

In the recent haze situation, households were issued N95 masks based on the per-capita income ceiling of $900. Those with incomes slightly above that are also likely to be genuinely needy, but were left out, as were those with respiratory conditions.

Any form of metric for government aid will inevitably result in groups on the margins losing out. Adopting a universal, transparent benchmark represents a promise by the Government that society is behind these households.

For the needy, this is better than having to guess if they would be eligible for certain programmes.

Moreover, it brings out the problem of income equality into the open, paving the way for both the state and citizens to forge a new way forward.

Timothy Lim Wei Chong
ST Forum, 25 Oct 2013

Hope for resettled homeless through Project 4650

By Imelda Saad, Channel NewsAsia, 1 Nov 2013

A project to get the East Coast Park homeless resettled has garnered positive results. Project 4650, started in 2010, has helped about 230 families so far.

The multi-agency effort arose from the emergence of a large number of people living in tents, along the East Coast Park beach, a few years ago.

The problem of families found living in public parks and beaches peaked in 2009, at the height of the Asian financial crisis.

Dr Maliki Osman, Minister of State for National Development, said: "On a daily basis we usually identify about 5 to 10 at that time and what we saw were families with very young children and it was a concern to us.

"Some borrowed money from family and friends and they figured that selling their flat was their only option.

"Many sold their flats and when they sold their flats they have difficulty looking for alternative flats for various reasons. (For instance they) can't afford another loan because their income wasn't there...some families ended up in parks, void deck spaces."

So began Project 4650 - named after the two blocks these families are now housed in.

The Azezy family moved in in 2011.

The family pay about $300 a month in rent and conservancy charges under the Interim Rental Housing Scheme for a room in a 3-room flat.

It's a tight space for the family of seven, but a far cry from their days living out of a van in Punggol Park.

Recalling those days, Mr Mohd Azezy Mohd Ayub said: "How you feel? Crying...but I never cried in front of my children."

Today, Mr Azezy holds a stable job and is even pursuing a diploma.

He now brings home about $1,800 a month working as a storeman.

And the family are looking forward to moving into their own Build-To-Order flat next year.

"I need a home. Home is important," said Mr Azezy.

Project 4650 provides holistic support - from helping the families re-locate to financial planning and supporting the children's educational needs.

It targets families with children below the age of 18.

Dr Maliki said: "One of the things that we wanted to make sure is that while we bring the families and provide them shelter, we don't just tell them, 'Okay, I've given you a shelter, go find your own way'.

"The welfare of the children is of utmost importance to us. We looked at the data when they came in. We saw that there was a significant number who have young children and we were concerned whether the children were doing well in school.

"I met some of the children and there are kids who are in Primary Five who can't even read the title of a book! So it raises concern to me and I thought we have to begin to understand how best we can support these families holistically."

The granting of financial help is tied to the attendance of workshops which cover topics like financial literacy or parenting skills.

And every week night, volunteers also run a "Homework Cafe" at Siglap Community Club for the children in the programme.

Munawara Fathima, a 21-year-old volunteer and coordinator who is also the vice-chairperson of Siglap Youth Executive Committee, said: "Before the programme started, we actually realised that these kids were hanging around the estate and neighbourhood at 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock, doing nothing. We realised that there's quite a large group of these kids.

"That's when we decided that rather than them hanging around, we'd rather they come together in a group and we give them an environment to sit down and do their homework."

To date, Project 4650 has helped about 230 families.

130 have since moved out to rent a flat of their own place or gone on to buy a BTO flat.

But some cases are still coming in.

A check at East Coast Park saw a few campers who admitted to living at the beach.

It's hard to tell if the people camping at East Coast Park are there for recreational reasons or if they are truly homeless.

Hence, authorities conduct regular patrols on public parks and beaches across Singapore to identify, investigate and help any individual or families seen to be squatting in the area.

They look out for things like how long a tent has been pitched in the area, signs of clothing or used cooking utensils - anything that points to the possibility of someone making the public space their home.

Dr Maliki said it's all about giving the families a sense of empowerment.

He said: "You may be seen as down and out when you were at the beaches or the parks but it doesn't mean that you are. You have the ability to pick up and do well.

"So we give them hope, we give them a sense that really they can improve their lives, and to many of these families, I think they saw the light when they saw things moving.

"So in dealing with these families you have to show them that you can offer them something tangible.

"Some of them, for example, come to us and they have arrears in the children's school fees.

"We say, 'come, we work with you, we'll find sources to support you and manage some of these arrears for you.'

"When they start to see tangible results, they start thinking that 'yes, these are the people that we want to work with, these are the people that believe in my potential and working with them will bring a better future for me and my children'."

Moving forward, the team behind the project is looking at new models of intervention as well as bringing new partners on board.

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