Imaginative measures needed to address long-term poverty in HK

No one can gainsay the dramatic achievement of the Chinese mainland in lifting hundreds of millions of its citizens permanently out of dire poverty over recent decades. It has done this by a combination of poverty-alleviation projects, funded in part by obliging its wealthier citizens to contribute by paying more taxes. It is high time that more — much more — is done in this direction, in this fabulously wealthy city of Hong Kong.

Of course, to clobber the rich for more taxes of itself alone will not reduce the wealth gap; wealth redistribution measures are needed to approach the problem from the other end, too. Columnist Victor Apps set out a raft of sensible measures in his article Taxation System Needs a Revamp to Reduce Wealth Inequality, China Daily, Feb 22.

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government last year announced that it has lifted well over 1 million Hong Kong people from poverty. (Nearly 1.1 Million HK Residents Lifted Out of Poverty in 2020, China Daily, Nov 10). Were only this encouraging change to be permanent, this would indeed be most welcome news; but let’s not celebrate too soon, until those among us living in long-term poverty are reduced to the bare minimum. It was said that the proportion of those living in poverty has recently been reduced from a staggering 23 percent (1.6 million residents) to 15 percent. Of course, your own definition of poverty may itself be subject to debate.

Given the government’s resources, no one in Hong Kong should be living in abject poverty; should have somewhere decent to live, and economic protection in old age. All these will be mentioned below. But certain other factors also play important parts in any such considerations. Such as: Do all the people have job security; are the educational standards high enough; do they have ready access to good healthcare; and is their public transport good and affordable?

Hong Kong’s public transport system is widely regarded as one of the world’s very best.

A decent lifetime’s income is needed to really lift people out of poverty. But the working poor shame us, inasmuch as despite their best efforts and working hard, their income still isn’t enough to live on comfortably. A dramatic increase in the statutory minimum wage, needed to live reasonably comfortably in this very expensive city, would do much to help to address this problem. A fairer society would provide all workers with adequate salaries. At the moment, certain jobs, such as in banking and those owning rental properties, receive colossal incomes; while those at the bottom end of our social scale receive only a pittance. Such a gross disparity of incomes needs to be addressed. As Victor says, one way to do this would be to extract income and capital gains taxes from more people, and at a higher rate, with the colossal extra public funds raised going into measures (such as those suggested in this article) aimed at long-term poverty alleviation.

Many Hong Kong residents above retirement age do not receive a pension. Even the present MPF system will fail to alter that unsavory predicament, as it simply pays out a lump sum (not a monthly pension) upon reaching retirement age. Arranging for a revamped MPF system to include a monthly pension payable from retirement age is clearly necessary; and at a sustainable rate — i.e., enough to live on. A measure of that would be when we see no more of our almost-destitute very elderly, pushing around huge trolleys to earn a crust by collecting wastepaper, cardboard or discarded drink containers for recycling, on the streets.

Handing out lump sums to Hong Kong residents, such as the recent HK$10,000 ($1,270) payment, while welcome, serves to alleviate the desperate needs of the poverty-stricken only very temporarily. Such handouts, if distributed each Lunar New Year, would do a lot to cheer the festive season of our poor. But really, a better regular income is what is most needed.

For many decades, Hong Kong has greatly aided its poor by the widespread provision of cheap public housing. But the need for this greatly exceeds the supply. Building or converting many more such accommodation units is rightly a governmental policy priority. We could with some justification claim to have minimized poverty only when our last dweller in a “cage home” is rehoused more comfortably.

Landing a good job is a key element, to enable a resident to avoid living in poverty. And yet, through all the long years of education, practical topics that would help prepare someone for the workforce (such as how to prepare an impressive resume; what to say at a job interview; how to keep a job; and how to get promoted) are seldom covered. That lack of provision, also, needs to be addressed.

All-in-all, while Hong Kong’s wealth gap grows ever-wider, imaginative measures are needed to firmly address this problem.

The author is a veteran commentator on Hong Kong social issues.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.