Checks ensure proper use of ST fund by families

Social workers monitor, cut funding if parents spend it inappropriately

ALLOWANCES from The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund will be stopped if parents are found to be spending the money inappropriately.

The money is meant to help children from low-income families with school expenses such as books, stationery, transport and meals. Social workers will cut off the flow if the money is found to have been spent on gambling or liquor.

Interviews with families and regular assessments are carried out to check that the money is properly used.

Primary school pupils now receive $55 a month from the fund, while secondary school students get $90 a month.

According to a study carried out by former National University of Singapore academics Chang-Keun Han and David Rothwell, some parents use the money to pay off urgent bills, before giving the rest to their children.

The findings of the study, which were published in The Straits Times earlier this month, led to questions on whether the fund has entirely fulfilled its purpose.

Straits Times reader Tay Li Hang, 23, said: 'While I appreciate that many of their families are in difficult financial straits, children should not be made to bear this heavy financial burden with their pocket money.'

But Dr Rothwell said the use of the fund for a variety of financial purposes had led to 'a perception of lower stress and family cohesion, and this is really important'. Further research was needed to establish this, he added.

Housewife Pusppa Nadeson, 45, for example, sometimes uses part of the money her two sons receive to pay for transport costs she and her sick husband incur when they go for medical consultations.

Her younger son, Karthigeyan Pannerchelvam, a Secondary1 student, said his mother's leg was always in pain. 'I sometimes ask her to take a taxi.'

He and his brother track their expenditure, including what they give to their parents - as asked by the family's social worker - and Madam Nadeson makes a point to pay it back.

Social workers interviewed say it is not ideal to disburse the money to beneficiaries - some of whom can be as young as seven - without parental involvement.

Mr Mani Joseph, assistant director of Asian Women's Welfare Association Family Service Centre (AWWA FSC), said: 'They have something to be proud of, to give to their children. The children's relationship with their parents is stronger.'

Mr Chua Wei Bin, head of Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centres' Cheng San branch, said it is part of normal parenting that parents manage their children's finances.

The FSCs, which make up the bulk of disbursing agencies for the 8,700 beneficiaries, have come up with different ways of monitoring the use of the fund.

At AWWA FSC, parents have to collect the cheques every month - after attending workshops. Alternative arrangements are made for parents who are unable to do so because of chronic illness or work.

The three branches of the Ang Mo Kio FSC bank the money into children's accounts to show the money is meant for them, though parents still have access.

At the topmost level, the National Council of Social Service, which administers the fund and distributes it to the disbursing agencies, reviews how agencies assess cases, their documentation, and their processes of giving out the money.

Social workers are aware that some of the money is used to pay household bills, but they prefer to focus on the long term: whether the children still benefit and are kept in school. School attendance is an indicator which they monitor.

Social workers say the fund acts as an entry point with families, to help them with other issues they may be facing.

Said Ms Grace Lee, centre director of Care Corner FSC (Toa Payoh): 'When you support the family and the parents are able to hold the fort, it translates to stability for the children.'

ayiying@sph.com.sg