Review means test for families with special needs

HOUSEHOLD means testing is a critical instrument in determining how much subsidy a person may receive from the Government and volunteer welfare organisations for various services.

Under means testing, the amount of subsidy received is dependent on the per capita income of the family, that is, the total gross family income divided by the number of people living in the household.

However, it appears that no provision is made that takes into account whether there are family members who are disabled or have special needs. Such families would be expected to incur a higher cost of living in comparison with a normal family of the same size.

For instance, a person with a disability may have diminished earning power, and his family may also have to fork out more money for his doctor's fees, therapy sessions, medical equipment and transport.

A child with special needs, such as autism, will require long-term speech and occupational therapy sessions. The cost of enrolling in a special needs school can be prohibitive, costing several hundred to a few thousand dollars a month.

While more assistance may be rendered to low-income families, this is done on a case-by-case basis, and the onus is placed on these already disadvantaged families to provide justification for more aid.

Rather, I wonder if it is possible for refinements to be made as to how per capita income is computed in the first place, to more equitably reflect the financial position of these families at the means testing stage.

One suggestion may be that a person with special needs or a disability be assigned a greater weighting when computing per capita income.

As an illustration, if a family of four comprising two parents and two children earns $3,000 a month, the monthly per capita income is $750 if each person carries a weighting of one.

But if one of the children has special needs or is disabled, the per capita income would drop to $600 a month if a higher weighting of two were assigned to this child. This would decrease further to $500 if the weighting were increased to three.

This lowered per capita income would then avail the family of more subsidies, helping them to better cope with their cost of living.

Daniel Ng Peng Keat (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2015, with the headline 'Review means test for families with special needs'. Print Edition | Subscribe