Poverty in Hong Kong

By Thomas Tang and Michael Somers
South China Morning Post

The people of Tin Shui Wai have been living a slow death

The people of Tin Shui Wai have been living a slow death. But while their suffering is generally known, its imposition on the public conscience is uncomfortable. Tin Shui Wai has come to embody our disenfranchised, but it's tough to think about their real-life hardships while sipping a latte at a chic street-side cafe in SoHo.

This is unfortunate in a developed society that attracts some of the highest international rankings in economic freedom and human development, and claims to be Asia's "world city".

Tin Shui Wai was planned hastily, to accommodate cross-border family reunions after the handover. It has had little to offer its mainly low-income, mainland immigrants except a sad litany of social isolation, poverty, domestic violence, chronic unemployment and high crime.

In Tin Shui Wai the domestic median household income is HK$13,750 - among the lowest in the city - compared to the Hong Kong average of HK$17,250. Adding to the suffering of this quarter of a million people is inadequate infrastructure and poor governance. All the while, residents have been expected to integrate with the rest of society, but have been given little help in doing so.

Amid this plight, a dozen housewives have told their stories of hardship in the best-seller The Voices of Tin Shui Wai Women. As reported in this newspaper, it has "spurred a self-help movement that's empowering the disadvantaged community". This effort includes the establishment of a support group, a mini-library and a bi-monthly publication - all to promote the talents that have been hidden within the dour towers of Tin Shui Wai. There is also talk of setting up businesses.

It's clear that these resourceful women are not asking for charity, but the tools they need to support themselves and their families, and contribute to society. For its part, the government seems to be stuck. Its approach - throwing money at the larger problem of poverty - desperately needs reviewing.

Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen's recent budget giveaway got a lukewarm reception from Hong Kong's poor. The one-year transport subsidy pilot scheme is fine in principle. Sadly, it's too little and too short-lived to make a real difference to job seekers who need help finding work in faraway districts with better job prospects, then resettling near their new workplaces.

The same can be said of adding 150 subsidised residential care places for the elderly, when there are 16,000 waiting. Similarly, only HK$900 million was set aside for social welfare against a HK$20 billion tax giveaway and a HK$55 billion surplus.

The government may want to take to heart recommendations made by the Women's Foundation, which held an engagement forum this month. Stakeholders at the forum urged a more realistic focus on needs. They called on the government to formulate and enforce policies and services to ease poverty for women and address the needs of marginalised groups. These include new immigrants - such as the Tin Shui Wai housewives - ethnic minorities, single mothers and the disabled.

They urged the government, in particular the Commission on Poverty and the Women's Commission, to get more involved in systematically co-ordinating the many community- and territory-level initiatives that help build capacity among the poor.

They can see that a more detailed, specific approach is needed in funding research if it is to be effective. In all this, they emphasised that there are always possibilities for the private sector to get involved.

So what of the future? Chief executive election candidate Alan Leong Kah-kit has introduced a discussion of some issues. And we can take heart from campaign pledges, like the one from Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to make poverty his personal crusade. But actions must now replace words.

There is much that can be achieved with public money if it is spent in the right manner, such as helping to start social enterprises and loosen bureaucratic procedures that hinder such exercises.

Will the rest of Hong Kong's poor be consulted and given meaningful assistance by their own government, or will they, like the Tin Shui Wai housewives, frustrated with lip service, be forced to find their own way down the path away from poverty?

Thomas Tang is managing director of the Global Institute For Tomorrow, and Michael Somers is its editor.