Handouts for the poor top $100m mark

WHO IS POOR? Estranged from his family, Mr Lee Yong Hong, 62, gets free meals and lives in a rental flat. He represents one group of elderly poor in Singapore. A team of experts has called for more data so more can be done to help the poor. -- ST PHO
WHO IS POOR? Estranged from his family, Mr Lee Yong Hong, 62, gets free meals and lives in a rental flat. He represents one group of elderly poor in Singapore. A team of experts has called for more data so more can be done to help the poor. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Biggest leap in social assistance help was in short-term payouts, which grew to $24.5m

Social assistance payments to the poor crossed the $100 million mark for the first time to reach $102.4million in the last financial year ending in March.

That was a nearly 45 per cent jump from the previous year and more than double the $44.5million given out five years ago.

The money came from the Community Care (ComCare) Endowment Fund, set up by the Government in 2005 to help needy families get back on their feet. Overall, 33,266 families and individuals were helped last year, up from 19,072 five years ago.

ComCare provides three broad types of assistance: long-term help, largely for the elderly poor; medium- and shorter-term help for those facing crises, such as illness or retrenchment; and childcare, kindergarten and infant care subsidies for children.

The biggest jump last year was in short-term payouts, which doubled to $24.5 million in a single year, said the latest ComCare annual report. Medium-term assistance rose from $10.5 million to $17.4 million.

The largest chunk - nearly $45 million - went to children, paying for infant care and pre-school fees.

Meanwhile, spending on long-term help remained relatively stable at $15.6 million.

The jump in short-term help was largely because of slower economic growth and more generous eligibility criteria implemented last year, said a spokesman for the Ministry of Social and Family Development, which oversees ComCare.

The income ceiling for short- and medium-term assistance was raised to $1,700 from $1,500 in April last year. Larger families became eligible too, as the ministry looked at household income divided by the number of people in the family and introduced a per-capita income criterion of up to $550.

"These will ensure that genuinely needy Singaporean families will be assisted if they need help," it said.

Larger families also became eligible for more kindergarten subsidies last year, with a new rule enabling those with per capita incomes of up to $875 per month to get help.

It has also become easier to get help, say those working with the poor.

In addition to community development councils and grassroots organisations, family service centres were allowed to hand out ComCare funds last year, said the general manager of the Social Service Office at Kreta Ayer, Mr Jai Prakash Ramalingam.

"When a person in need approaches a help centre, more organisations can now give out short-term aid immediately, even as we investigate the merits of the application and verify documents on whether a family needs financial assistance in the longer term," he said.

Executive director Choo Jin Kiat, of O'Joy Care Services, welcomed news of greater help for the poor, but said challenges remain. Many older people still find it hard to get jobs and their wages are still depressed.

"Apart from the Government, employers, donors and citizens must all have a heart and play a part in helping the poor," he said.

radhab@sph.com.sg

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