THE number of people living in poverty in Hong Kong has risen to an eight-year high. Government officials, though promising stronger action to alleviate poverty, said that the ageing population was causing upward pressure on poverty figures, and there is little room for the poverty rate to come down. The government has vowed to improve people's livelihood, and the alleviation of poverty should be its focus. The government should not say prematurely that poverty alleviation is a lost cause and concede defeat before making a real effort.
According to the latest poverty figures published by the government, 1.352 million Hong Kong people are living in poverty, the highest number since 2009. After the government's recurrent cash policy intervention is taken into account, there are still 996,000 people living in poverty. The poverty rate is 14.7 per cent, a rise of 0.4 percentage points on last year and the first rise since 2009. Government statistics also show that the problem of elderly people in poverty has deteriorated, as the number is now near 340,000. Over the past few years, the government has apparently stepped up its poverty alleviation measures. There are two reasons why the population in poverty is still rising. First, the existing anti-poverty measures are inadequate and are not strong enough. Second, the poor population is rising at such a rapid rate that the existing anti-poverty measures cannot cope with it. To deal with the first problem, it is necessary to make a technical improvement, while the second problem calls for a comprehensive review of the policy.
The Low-income Working Family Allowance (LIFA) was thought to be the government's trump card against poverty. However, as of last year, the number of people who had benefited from the scheme was just a little more than 30,000, much lower than the government had expected. Red tape and the high threshold are among the reasons why the scheme has drawn such a lukewarm response. It has been found in some non-governmental surveys that many beneficiaries of the scheme who are not public housing tenants have to use the allowance for rent payments. They cannot even spend the extra Child allowance on their children's education. As the LIFA has failed to achieve what it is supposed to achieve, even Law Chi-kwong, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, admitted that the policy was not forceful enough and needed improvement.
The government is hoping to improve the LIFA scheme as well as launch the higher tier of assistance under the Old Age Living Allowance (Higher OALA) next year to benefit more people. The government's aspiration to improve the efficiency of its policies is laudable. However, it is questionable whether this will achieve a significant improvement to the poverty problem. After all, poverty as a problem involves many structural factors, which makes a comprehensive strategy necessary. The redistribution of wealth by the government cannot possibly solve the problem once and for all. For instance, the LIFA scheme has achieved little in enhancing households who are not tenants of public housing, and the failure stems from rents. If the government fails to help these people get onto the property ladder as soon as possible, the effectiveness of its anti-poverty measures will be significantly affected.
Globalisation has led to structural changes to labour markets in developed regions, making it difficult for low-skilled workers to find a stable and secured job. This is a major reason why the poverty problem is deteriorating. The advent of AI and automation will further worsen the situation. The International Labour Organisation has pointed out that the greatest obstacle to eliminating poverty is the lack of stable jobs. Poor people are not protected by employment and income safety. To get to the bottom of poverty, the only solution is to create more high-quality job opportunities for poor people. Hong Kong's social security net is riddled with problems. Improvements are necessary. However, when combatting poverty, the government must be far-sighted and review and incorporate policies from housing to employment.