Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Review of public assistance scheme payouts, sum may increase in 2019 after price changes taken into account

Exercise to take into account price changes of essential items and social workers' feedback
By Theresa Tan, Senior Social Affairs Correspondent, The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2018

Those who are on public assistance may get more money each month after an ongoing review, which is expected to be done next year.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said it is reviewing the sum given out - which is to cover basic living expenses such as food, transport and rental - to those on the scheme. The review will take into account changes in the prices of essential items and feedback from community partners and front-line staff who work closely with the poor.

Also called ComCare's Long Term Assistance Scheme, the public assistance scheme is for destitute persons who cannot work permanently as a result of old age or illness, and have little or no family support.

"The ongoing review of ComCare's Long Term Assistance Scheme is part of the MSF's regular efforts to ensure we continue to meet the needs of the vulnerable," said the spokesman.

This review comes after previous ones in 2013 and 2016, which both led to higher sums handed out to public assistance recipients.

Many of the social workers and academics interviewed said the cost of living has risen in recent years.

Research associate at the Institute of Policy Studies Leonard Lim pointed out that the cost of food has risen, especially for the poorest here. According to the Consumer Price Index, the bottom 20 per cent of households in terms of income saw their food costs go up by 1.5 per cent in 2017, compared with 2016. The group also saw transport costs rise by 1 per cent in the same period.

Mr Lim said: "Given that past reviews have raised the sums to keep pace with the cost of living, it is likely that the public assistance rates will go up again in this round of review to reflect the rising cost of food."

After the 2013 review, a one-person household received $450 a month from April that year, up from $400. A two-person family got $790, up from $700. The MSF also beefed up the scheme in 2013, for example, by paying for essentials such as adult diapers and stoma bags for those who need it.

From July 2016, a one-person household on the scheme received $500 monthly, up from $450. And a two-person household received $870, up from $790.

In the MSF's 2017 financial year, which ended in March, there were 4,409 households on the scheme, up 24 per cent from the 3,568 families in 2013. Most of those on public assistance are poorly educated, elderly singles who live alone.

Social workers have mixed views on whether the current sums given out are enough.

Mr Don Tan, from the Tsao Foundation's Hua Mei Centre for Successful Ageing, said most of the beneficiaries they see cope well with the sums given. They also have access to community services, such as free medical treatment at polyclinics and government hospitals.

However, Dr Jamie Phang, head of the Methodist Welfare Services' Home Care, said $500 a person is hardly enough to cover basic needs.

She added: "It leaves little or nothing for discretionary spending that many of us take for granted, like buying an extra fish for lunch or a new pair of shoes. When money is so tight, many may experience the 'down-to-the-last-dollar phenomenon' at the end of the month. This increases the risk of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety."

Ms Darryl Loh, director of family services at Montfort Care, said the sums given do "broadly cover" the basic needs of a low-income senior, although the person has to keep to a very strict budget. If his circumstances change - if he falls ill and spends more on transport by seeing a doctor regularly, for example - he may not be able to cope.

She added: "Given the increasing cost of living in Singapore, we look forward to an increase in the assistance quantum."

A former odd-job worker, Mr Ho, 92, survives on the $500 he gets each month in public assistance. The bachelor stopped work about 20 years ago after falling off his bicycle and injuring his leg. He has no savings and no relatives here to help him, and has been on public assistance for the past 15 years.

Mr Ho, who declined to give his full name, said in Mandarin: "I can get by if I budget very carefully and live very frugally."

The bulk of his expenses goes towards food. He said it is cheaper to cook his own meals than to eat out. His expenses include $26 a month for the rental of his one-room flat, about $50 a month for utilities and about $50 for transport.

Mr Ho, who also tries not to go out too often, said: "I would be most grateful and happy if the Government can give us more money."

More families depending on public assistance from Government; $131 million in ComCare cash assistance to about 79,500 beneficiaries in FY2017

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