21 November 2013

Poverty (Line) Shy

A friend lost his wallet overseas not too long ago. When he went to report the loss at a police station there, he sensed that the police were framing their questions in a way that he had almost no choice but to say that he had dropped or misplaced his wallet, rather than that he was pick-pocketed. No crime committed. No incremental crime statistic.

So perhaps that is similar to the Government's reluctance to set an official poverty line.

Although the State does provide some people with financial assistance, so long as there is no official poverty line, there may exist a divergence between unofficial or perceived poverty and official poverty (somewhat akin to the divergence between thinking of oneself as being unemployed and being considered by statisticians to be unemployed).

What are the reasons why an official poverty line should or should not be set?

Extreme poverty
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Singapore has moved beyond the point of "extreme poverty", defined by the United Nations as living with less than US$1.50 per day.

First, this is a red herring. No one is calling for the official poverty line to be set at US$1.50 per day. The call is for the Government to set an official poverty line.

Second, is there really no citizen living with less than US$1.50 per day?

No single definition
A poverty line does not fully reflect the severity and complexity of the issues faced by poor families, which could include ill health, lack of housing or weak family relationships.

Why is it necessary to have a single definition of poverty?

Anyone or almost anyone (including his/her dependants) who satisfies the criteria for State assistance under any of the following (and other similar) programmes may be considered to be poor:
▪ Community Care Endowment Fund
▪ Community Health Assist Scheme
▪ Public Assistance Scheme
▪ Medical Endowment Fund
▪ Workfare Income Scheme

When the Government distributed N95 face masks to 200,000 needy households during the severe haze in June, how did it know which households should be considered to be needy?

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing explained that those households were verified through their membership in the CHAS Blue scheme or a simple self-declaration of income when they visited the community clubs or centres to collect the masks. The People's Association grassroots network helped to identify vulnerable groups.

Aren't these 200,000 households below, or around, the poverty line?

More importantly, did any households miss out because of the absence of an official poverty line?

Marginal cases
Both Mr Lee and Mr Chan are concerned that setting an official poverty line may mean that some people at the margin may not qualify for State assistance.

First, with a multi-definition of poverty, fewer will fall outside the margin.

Second, the same difficulty with some people at the margin not qualifying for State assistance applies to all the State financial assistance programmes such as CHAS, WIS etc.

What's the point?
As long as the needy are comprehensively and adequately identified and given financial assistance via State programmes such as CHAS, Medifund etc, do we need an official poverty line i.e., one that is known to the public?

Without an official poverty line:

▪ The true extent — breadth and depth — of poverty in Singapore is not known. How many are poor? How many are very poor? How many are desperately poor?

▪ It is difficult, if not impossible, to make comparisons with other countries at a similar stage of economic development.

▪ It is difficult for concerned people and groups to work for change to improve the lives of the poor through poverty reduction and poverty alleviation. Do any Government policies exacerbate the poverty situation? Do any Government policies have to be changed? How?

1 comment:

  1. Not having a poverty line defined will exonerate our PAP from all sorts of responsibilities associated with looking after the welfare of all those living below the poverty line. I suppose our political leaders are cunning enough not to set a trap for themselves especially if any real statistics later show they are doing nothing much to really lift the desperately poor out of the poverty line. As with the current status without a poverty line defined, they don't have to answer to anybody just like when one of the Ministers said what do they expect to eat at the hawker centre, foodcourt or restaurant?