Earlier this month, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government released the “Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report 2020”, and as anticipated, it received good coverage in the mass media. Pitifully, however, most coverage was not really factual.
What was highlighted in most media headlines were lines like “The poverty population reached a 12-year record high” and “Almost 1 in every 4 Hong Kong citizens was in poverty”. Lines like those are punchy, one would have to agree. But should the general public be at least entitled to know the real picture? It is understandable for media headlines to aim to catch readers’ attention. But should it be done at the expense of ripping readers off of their rights to know the facts?
Many media headlines quoted the figure “1.65 million”, claiming that Hong Kong has a “poverty population of over 1.65 million”. It is right that the figure 1.65 million does originate from the report, but when it appears there, it is merely a figure of purely theoretical assumption.
According to the report, the government attaches great importance to the poverty situation as well as poverty alleviation work in Hong Kong. The government has intervened in three ways to help the situation; namely, “recurrent cash measures” (like tax deductions and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance), “non-recurrent cash measures” (including one-off measures such as extra social security payments and the cash payout of HK$10,000 [$1,280]), and “means-tested in-kind benefits” (mainly in public rental housing).
The report (Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report 2020) has stated clearly that the 1.653 million figure is a “pre-intervention” one, and to make it even clearer, the report has actually qualified the figure by saying that it is a “purely theoretical assumption”. In other words, the number of Hong Kong’s poor population would have been 1.653 million had the government not intervened by providing the three types of measures mentioned earlier
After such intervention measures, the report has shown clearly that the overall poverty rate fell from 2019’s 9.2 percent to 7.9 percent in 2020. The number of overall poor households has gone down 45,000 to 242,000, whereas the size of the poor population decreased by 88,000 to 554,000 in 2020. All these are significant drops, and they must not be taken lightly, given that Hong Kong’s economy was going through a hard time under the COVID-19 pandemic in the two years under comparison.
Yes, you’re reading it correctly, the size of the poor population in Hong Kong in 2020 was 554,000. If that is the case, then where does the “mythical” figure of over 1.65 million come from? The report has stated clearly that the 1.653 million figure is a “pre-intervention” one, and to make it even clearer, the report has actually qualified the figure by saying that it is a “purely theoretical assumption”. In other words, the number of Hong Kong’s poor population would have been 1.653 million had the government not intervened by providing the three types of measures mentioned earlier. But everyone knows that the measures have actually been implemented, and so the pre-intervention figure of 1.653 million should only be understood to serve as a base case to show the effectiveness of the government’s intervention in reducing the actual numbers of poor households and the poor population.
The Hong Kong economy experienced a severe recession in 2020 as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The labor market was in bad shape, as we witnessed a rising unemployment rate and decelerated overall wage growth. Facing such bitter circumstances, the government implemented alleviation measures under its policy intervention, and as a result, a total of 461,000 households and 1.099 million people were lifted out of poverty. When compared to 2019, the overall poverty alleviation impact has strengthened substantially by 3.5 percentage points in 2020. The year-on-year comparison shows decreases in the poverty rates in different age groups, genders, and most of the groups classified by either household characteristic or district. The impacts of the measures are being felt, and as of 2020, the poverty line has been reduced to an all-time low.
The above said, however, we do need to pay more attention to the issue of poor youth, albeit the fact that the poverty situation of youths aged 18 to 29 has always fared better than the overall situation. After the alleviation measures, there were 44,400 poor youths, with a poverty rate of 4.8 percent in 2020. Without the measures, the size of the poor-youth population could have reached 143,600, showing a poverty rate of 15.6 percent. The measures have helped to reduce the youth poverty rate by 10.8 percentage points. It has to be pointed out, however, that the effectiveness of poverty alleviation for the youth could mostly be attributable to the remarkable effect of the one-off HK$10,000 cash payout.
It is true that poverty alleviation is no small task. It is an ongoing undertaking that requires determination, vision and strategic efforts by not only the government and the Commission on Poverty, but also by everyone who has the capability and feels the need to do something for the good of Hong Kong. We are glad to see the effects of the alleviation measures, but some of them are one-off in nature. Like all other government measures and policies, whether they will be carried out again in the future is subject to rationalization considering the different and competing needs of society in the future. One achievement we can take pride in, however, is that Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient has now improved to 0.53, whereas our ranking under the CWI Swiss Institute has gone up from 60 to 48.
The author is a non-official member of the Commission on Poverty.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS