Wednesday 13 November 2013

Assistance schemes for needy

'Range of aid for needy, flexible rules'
Chan Chun Sing assures MPs worried about Singaporeans missing out
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 12 Nov 2013

SINGAPORE has many helplines for people with differing needs, and the rules are flexible when they do not meet the qualifying criteria but are genuinely in need, said Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing in Parliament yesterday.

This assurance from Mr Chan came amid renewed calls for Singapore to identify an official poverty line after Hong Kong set one in September.

Some MPs had argued it would focus on the state of poverty here and track how it is addressed.

But Mr Chan had rejected their argument at last month's parliamentary session. He said it risks a "cliff effect", where those below the poverty line get all forms of help while citizens who are genuinely in need but outside the poverty line are excluded.

Yesterday, he defended again Singapore's multi-pronged help strategy as Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC), Ms Lee Li Lian (Punggol East) and Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong asked about the eligibility criteria of social assistance schemes.

Handing out a rainbow-coloured chart of a range of aid that gives bigger sums to the low-income, Mr Chan said: "It shows how we share the fruits of our success with all Singaporeans by providing more for those with less."

On one end are broad-based subsidies for essentials such as housing and health care, and for development, which stretch from early childhood care to education and training.

Such help covers a broader group of Singaporeans, and the lower-income get more support, he said, citing the Community Health Assistance Scheme for lower- and middle-income families with per capita household income of up to $1,800 a month.

About 340,000 cardholders qualify for subsidies of up to $18.50 for a visit to the doctor for common ailments like a cold, and up to $80 a visit for chronic conditions like diabetes, with caps that rise to $480 a year.

On the other end are targeted schemes for a smaller lower-income group who need more help.

For instance, with ComCare, more than 8,500 citizens receive up to $108 a month in kindergarten subsidies, and more than 10,000 get wage supplements of varying amounts.

To be eligible for ComCare, the household income ceiling is $1,700 a month or per capita income of up to $550.

But Mr Chan assured Mr Yee that ComCare has no "cliff effect" as those who apply are assessed not only by income, but also by family size, number of children in school and medical status.

"It is not the case that everyone under ComCare gets the same amount," he said, adding that more than 1,500 households who did not meet the income criteria got ComCare last year.

While MPs acknowledged the Government's efforts, Ms Foo, Mr Zaqy Mohamed (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) said such help did not always reach the needy, because they might not know of it or are daunted by the application process.

Dr Intan said a wait of two to four weeks for ComCare frustrated her residents. She called for front-line staff to be trained to be flexible in giving help, and for better coordination among government agencies.

Agreeing that more could be done, Mr Chan said: "I urge all Members of the House to join us in this, to mobilise the volunteers, to reach out to these groups of people so that... they do not need to go through the difficult moments in life alone."

‘Limitations’ in having a single poverty line
By Ashley Chia, TODAY, 12 Nov 2013

A single poverty line is “one-dimensional” and inadequate for identifying the poor or assessing the effectiveness of assistance schemes, said Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing yesterday.

Hence, the Government has opted to have different criteria to identify groups of Singaporeans who require support, “depending on the purpose”. “In other words, we have multiple lines of assistance instead of a single poverty line,” he said.

Mr Chan was responding to a parliamentary question for written reply from Nominated Member of Parliament Laurence Lien on whether the Government would review its stand on defining a poverty line for Singapore.

In his reply, Mr Chan noted that a poverty line has its limitations — it could lead to a cliff effect where those below the line are guaranteed a whole range of help and those above receive none, regardless of actual needs. Neither does it provide “useful information on the depth or intensity of needs of low-income families”, he said.

Yesterday, several Members of Parliament (MPs) had raised concerns about the eligibility criteria of various social assistance schemes and their impact on the needy, with Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Intan Azura Mokhtar rising to speak in an adjournment motion on social assistance and affordability.

Responding, Mr Chan assured that there is no cliff effect in the national assistance scheme, Comcare, as “overall circumstances beyond income” are taken into account when assessing applications.

These factors include household size, number of schooling children and medical conditions.

He added that the Government takes a “flexible” approach in ensuring that help is rendered to those who need it most.

He also pointed out that last year, more than 1,500 households received assistance despite not meeting Comcare’s eligibility criteria. As of June, 11,800 households have received short- and medium-term Comcare assistance.

Mr Chan also stressed that those with the lowest incomes should always get the most. “We should not be in a situation whereby because of politics, the middle income group end up getting the bulk of it and we neglect the lowest-income group,” he said.

In her speech, Dr Intan suggested refinements to various assistance schemes, such as paying Medisave Maternity Package subsidies for pre-delivery expenses upfront to low-income mothers, instead of reimbursing them after delivery. She also called for better coordination between agencies for effective assistance.

Mr Chan acknowledged that more could be done on this front. Earlier, he also said the planned national database for the social services sector could help streamline processes and that social workers will be trained to understand the types of help available.

Two questions on the Government’s stance on a single poverty line have been tabled for today’s Parliament sitting.

In marathon to help the poor, finishing the last mile is key
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 12 Nov 2013

AMONG those who are still to be convinced of the Government's shift to the left of centre, a few more may have changed their minds after yesterday's parliamentary debate.

From transport fares to public assistance, for over an hour, the House heard the extent to which the Government is determined to go to uplift low-income families.

In fact, low-income workers can look forward to paying lower transport fares next year than they do now, pledged Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, with the Government using public funds to foot the bill for such discounts.

Yet a real problem still remains amid all the schemes and concessions. There is still a lack of awareness of what is available and who it is for. Those in need continue to fall through the cracks.

It was a point made by five different Members of Parliament yesterday, no less.

Despite the many schemes and the amount of help provided by the Government, anecdotal evidence on the ground shows there are still vulnerable families and individuals who are not benefiting from them.

Fundamentally, as both the ministers and MPs pointed out - good policy does not end with its crafting. Good policy needs to be supported by communication, outreach and accessibility in order to be effective.

Take for example the last fare review exercise in 2011.

Of the 200,000 vouchers available to needy families to offset the fare increase, just over half were taken up, Mr Lui said. And this was after the Government had made two calls for applications.

"It is not the situation where we do not have enough vouchers, but really it is how to reach out to them, how to make sure that they are fully aware of some of the schemes," Mr Lui said.

It is also the case for social assistance schemes, MPs said, despite Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing taking the opportunity to raise awareness among MPs on the myriad schemes available with the help of a multi-coloured, 18-layer bar chart.

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC), Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) all raised this concern about the lack of awareness leading to lower rates of access.

Ms Foo said: "Somehow the people who need the help have the impression the schemes are available on a case-by-case basis."

Communicating the assistance schemes clearly to the target groups, she added, will help residents better understand who the schemes are targeted at, and raise awareness of the availability of the scheme.

It would also give more confidence to residents to come forward if they need help.

Mr Chan acknowledged the shortcomings.

He said that during his own house visits he finds families who do not apply for education bursaries for their children because they simply do not know about them.

At the heart of the matter is this: the lack of awareness and knowledge about schemes raises the inevitable question of whether the schemes are targeting the right people, and if the resources are being used most efficiently.

It is a question made all the more critical as the Government is expanding its use of financial resources to fund social needs.

This is a problem that has plagued the Government before and is not limited to social assistance schemes or transport vouchers. In the business world, productivity-enhancing schemes for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have also met with similar limitations because they are either too complicated or firms simply do not know about them.

So what can be done?

Mr Chan's ministry is increasing outreach efforts with 10 new social service offices being set up, and more family service centres being built. But he also acknowledged that the officers need to be well-informed first, so that the person in need is not put off by the complexity of the scheme.

The heavy lifting need not be done by the person seeking help, but by the officer helping him. The schemes too need to be simplified and the application process made easier and more flexible.

There is also room to collaborate with and leverage on the platforms of civil society groups.

One particular campaign is the recent Caritas-led Singaporeans Against Poverty, which is using social media to draw attention to those living with less.

Caritas is the charity arm of the Catholic church, and it is not the only group working to raise awareness of poverty, as more people are becoming conscious of the plight of the less fortunate and want to help.

While it may be natural for the Government to be sceptical of such intentions, it should not shy away from working with such organisations, because these groups could help to publicise government schemes.

While raising awareness of the plight of the less fortunate, why not raise the awareness of the help available to them too?

Yesterday's debate shows just how much the Government is willing to do for the low income, but its policies will continue to be questioned and their impact diluted, if outreach cannot be improved.

As Mr Chan said: "It is about closing that last mile, making sure that our communication reaches the people to whom we are targeting the message."

In this regard, the Government, and indeed all Singaporeans who care, cannot be satisfied and must do more.


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