Teach disadvantaged families how to help themselves

I agree with Associate Professor Teo You Yenn (Let's talk about meeting needs, not just equality of opportunity; May 30) that we need to understand the individual personal and familial circumstances of those at the bottom of our social hierarchy before we can help them.

In my volunteer work in London, I have had to deal with many clients whose families are trapped in a vicious circle of debt (it usually starts with a small high-interest loan or credit card debt), unemployment (uncompetitive because of their low skills), poor health (depression arising from unemployment, or other health issues from abuse of drugs or medicines), and a lack of education, which means they do not even know where to start looking for help.

As a result, their children suffer from poor housing/homelessness, poor nutrition, poor attendance at school, and ultimately, a lack of qualifications.

Despite all the resources thrown at them - free healthcare, free education and assistance in school - these children still fail to thrive.

Meanwhile taxpayers are disbursing huge benefits payments that seem to offer an abysmal return on investment.

And we have not even touched on the issue of crime that results from such dire circumstances.

In my ideal world, I would send these disadvantaged families a mentor - perhaps a retired management consultant - to identify what their skills and resources are and why these are underutilised, and arrive at a holistic 12-/18-/24-month plan to get both the adults and children debt-free, employed or in school, and in good physical and mental health.

Such families cannot be freed from "benefits traps", "poverty traps" or "inequality traps" until they have been helped to help themselves and learn not to reproduce these cultural patterns.

Sometimes, it could be as simple as knowing how to discipline children, what to feed them, or perhaps even how to cook.

Lee Siew Peng (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2018, with the headline 'Teach disadvantaged families how to help themselves'. Print Edition | Subscribe