Why setting a poverty line may not be helpful: Minister Chan Chun Sing

Singapore is not considering having an official poverty line, as it would not fully reflect the severity and complexity of issues faced by the poor, and may also lead to those above the line missing out on assistance, says Social and Family Developme
Singapore is not considering having an official poverty line, as it would not fully reflect the severity and complexity of issues faced by the poor, and may also lead to those above the line missing out on assistance, says Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing. -- ST FILE PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Broader definition of poverty reflects better the complexity of issues

Singapore is not considering having an official poverty line, as it would not fully reflect the severity and complexity of issues faced by the poor, and may also lead to those above the line missing out on assistance.

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing made these points on Monday, amid renewed calls for Singapore to look into having one after Hong Kong set an official poverty line last month.

In a written parliamentary reply, he said the Government's approach is to use broad definitions for the groups it seeks to help, set clear criteria to identify and assess those in need, and come up with tailored schemes.

"If we use a single poverty line to assess the family, we also risk a 'cliff effect', where those below the poverty line receive all forms of assistance, while other genuinely needy citizens outside the poverty line are excluded," he said.

They were the Government's first comments on the issue since Hong Kong's policy change on Sept 30.

Mr Chan said a poverty line would also miss out other issues that poor families face. These include ill health, lack of housing and weak family relationships.

Replying to questions by Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong and Nominated MP Laurence Lien, Mr Chan said Singapore's assessment process for providing help to those in need is "rigorous but also flexible" to cater to the genuinely needy.

This means that those who do not meet certain criteria in help programmes are also able to receive assistance.

The Government also conducts regular reviews to ensure that ComCare assistance remains relevant to the low-income and vulnerable, he said.

ComCare is social assistance provided to low-income families.

Mr Chan said different nations tailor their methods to identify and help their needy according to their circumstances, and other developed ones such as New Zealand and Canada also do not subscribe to official poverty lines.

Hong Kong set its poverty line at half the median household income level according to household size, with about 1.3 million, or a fifth of its population, living under it. So the poverty line for a four-person household is HK$14,300 (S$2,300).

Like Singapore, Hong Kong is grappling with high levels of income inequality. Its Gini co-efficient, a commonly-used measure of income inequality, is 0.53, compared with Singapore's 0.47. The closer the number is to 1, the higher the inequality.

Mr Yee also asked what the Government's internal measure of neediness was when it distributed N95 masks to 200,000 needy households in June during the haze.

Mr Chan said that the one million masks were given to households with a per-capita income below $900.

Their income was verified through their membership in the Community Health Assist Scheme Blue Scheme or by self-declaration of income at the community clubs.

chanckr@sph.com.sg