22nd June 2024 – (Hong Kong) The Hong Kong government’s recent announcement of a new concept to assess the city’s poverty situation more accurately has sparked hope for a more effective approach to alleviating this pressing issue. However, the success of this initiative will hinge on its ability to capture the multifaceted nature of poverty and guide targeted interventions that genuinely improve the lives of the underprivileged.

The existing poverty line in Hong Kong, which defines poverty as living in a household with a monthly income below 50 percent of the median, has been criticised for its narrow focus on income alone. Chief Secretary Eric Chan Kwok-ki highlighted the deficiencies of this approach, citing the example of a retiree with multiple properties but no income, who would still be classified as poor under the current system. This simplistic measurement fails to account for the complexities of poverty and may lead to an overestimation of the issue.

To address these shortcomings, the Commission on Poverty, chaired by Chan, is collaborating with government economic advisers to develop a new concept for assessing poverty in Hong Kong. This initiative draws inspiration from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s idea of targeted poverty alleviation, first introduced in 2013. The goal is to create a more accurate poverty line that can serve as a useful benchmark for formulating effective policies and guiding volunteer groups in providing essential services to those in need.

The government’s identification of around 950,000 elderly people, single-parent households, and subdivided flat tenants as targets for poverty alleviation is a step in the right direction. By focusing on these vulnerable groups, the government acknowledges that poverty is not just about income but also encompasses factors such as age, family structure, and living conditions. This targeted approach allows for a more nuanced understanding of the specific challenges faced by different segments of the population and enables the development of tailored solutions.

However, as Assistant Professor Chan Siu-ming from City University’s Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences pointed out, the government should consider expanding the scope of its poverty alleviation efforts to include other marginalised groups, such as households with children who have special educational needs or individuals with disabilities or serious illnesses. A comprehensive approach that takes into account the diverse needs of various disadvantaged groups is essential for truly tackling poverty at its roots.

Moreover, the government must recognise that poverty is not just a matter of financial deprivation but also encompasses social and psychological dimensions. The concept of “mental poverty,” as mentioned by Chief Secretary Chan, highlights the importance of addressing the emotional and psychological well-being of those living in poverty. Initiatives such as care team visits to elderly individuals living alone demonstrate the government’s acknowledgement of the social isolation and loneliness that often accompany financial hardship.

The pilot plan to launch community living rooms in areas with a high concentration of subdivided homes is another commendable effort to improve the living conditions of the underprivileged. By providing additional living space and fostering a sense of community, these projects have the potential to alleviate the physical and psychological strain experienced by those residing in cramped and substandard housing.

However, while these targeted interventions are crucial, they must be complemented by broader systemic changes to address the underlying causes of poverty in Hong Kong. The city’s widening wealth gap, as highlighted by Oxfam’s report showing that the poorest make less than 2 per cent of what the wealthiest earn, is a stark reminder of the structural inequalities that perpetuate poverty. Addressing these disparities requires a multi-pronged approach that includes progressive taxation, affordable housing policies, and investments in education and skills training to enhance social mobility.

Furthermore, the government must ensure transparency and accountability in its poverty alleviation efforts. The Commission on Poverty’s decision to stop releasing its annual poverty report in 2022 raises concerns about the accessibility of crucial data and the public’s ability to monitor progress. Regular reporting and open communication are essential for building trust and engaging the community in the fight against poverty.

As Hong Kong enters this new phase in its fight against poverty, it is essential to learn from the experiences of other countries and cities. The Poverty-Identity-Society research project in Switzerland, which brought together academics, practitioners, and individuals with lived experience of poverty, showcases the value of collaborative and participatory approaches in understanding and addressing the complexities of poverty. Hong Kong could benefit from adopting similar methodologies that prioritize the voices and expertise of those directly affected by poverty.

Similarly, the advocacy efforts of organisations like Sacred Heart Mission in Australia, which highlight the need for systemic changes such as building social housing, improving income support, and increasing wages, demonstrate the importance of a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach to poverty reduction. Hong Kong must look beyond short-term measures and commit to long-term structural reforms that create a more equitable and inclusive society.

The financial system, too, has a vital role to play in combating poverty, as highlighted by Shivani Siroya, founder and CEO of Tala, in her opinion piece for the Chicago Tribune. By recognising the potential of historically underestimated populations and providing them with access to basic financial services, such as banking and credit, the financial sector can contribute to economic empowerment and poverty alleviation. Hong Kong’s government and financial institutions must work together to ensure that the city’s underprivileged have access to the financial tools and resources they need to break the cycle of poverty.

The British Columbia government’s TogetherBC poverty reduction strategy offers valuable insights into the importance of setting clear targets, timelines, and accountability measures in the fight against poverty. Hong Kong could benefit from adopting a similar approach, with legislated targets for reducing overall poverty and child poverty, regular progress reports, and an independent advisory committee to provide oversight and guidance.

As Hong Kong redefines its approach to measuring and addressing poverty, it is essential to recognise that this is not just a technical exercise but a moral imperative. Poverty amid plenty challenges a society’s conscience, and how it is calculated and tackled reflects the values and priorities of the community as a whole. By adopting a holistic and multidimensional approach that considers income, living conditions, employment, and social inclusion, Hong Kong can develop targeted solutions that genuinely improve the lives of its underprivileged citizens.

To truly make a difference, the government must engage in meaningful collaboration with civil society organisations, academics, and, most importantly, those who have firsthand experience of living in poverty. By giving voice to the marginalised and incorporating their insights into policy-making, Hong Kong can develop targeted interventions that address the root causes of poverty and create lasting change. Short-term measures, such as cash handouts or tax breaks, may provide temporary relief but do little to address the structural inequalities that perpetuate poverty. Instead, Hong Kong must invest in long-term solutions, such as affordable housing, accessible education and skills training, and a robust social safety net that ensures no one falls through the cracks.

The private sector, too, has a critical role to play in this endeavour. Businesses, particularly financial institutions, must recognise the untapped potential of underserved communities and work towards creating inclusive economic opportunities. By providing access to affordable credit, supporting entrepreneurship, and investing in community development, the private sector can contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty and fostering sustainable growth.