Lifting families out of poverty: Focus on the children

Study ideas to enhance living environment, and expand earn and learn schemes


When I was in Primary 1, a teacher corrected me when I wrote in an English test that I slept under the bed. On the bed, not under the bed, she said, despite my protest that I was telling the truth.

I was born in a one-room Housing Board rental flat in Stirling Road and lived there for nine years with my parents, an older sister and two younger brothers. The mattress I slept on was partially tucked under my parents' bed.

Forty years later, there are still families living in such cramped conditions. My colleague Janice Tai and I reported in The Sunday Times this week the stories of a family of seven living in a one-room flat in Marsiling and a family of eight in a two-room flat in Clementi.

The breakthrough for my family came in 1978, when we upgraded to a three-room HDB flat in Queen Street, in which my parents still live in their twilight years.

My father, who dropped out of secondary school, worked extra shifts as a forklift driver and my mother, who is illiterate, had multiple jobs as a babysitter, maid and office cleaner. They scrimped and saved to put four children through university. Three of us are now married with our own families and homes.

As society progresses, it should be easier for families like mine to break out of poverty, not harder.


The social safety net today is much stronger than 40 years ago, as is the generosity of government help, despite it not having an official definition of poverty.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development is setting up Social Service Offices to provide direct help to those in need. ComCare provides short- to long-term financial help; Workfare tops up the earnings of low-wage workers and Silver Support gives stipends to help poorer elderly folk cope with costs of living.

Official statistics show lives have improved too. The incomes of the bottom fifth that stagnated between 2001 and 2010 have grown by an average of 2.1 per cent a year from 2010 to 2015 after taking inflation into account. The rich-poor gap has narrowed, especially after taking into account government transfers. Still, some are stuck in poverty.

The most heartbreaking story in The Sunday Times' feature was the four children whose parents are in jail for drug offences. The youngest child, now nine, was born in prison.

There was also a 22-year-old bride who moved into another rental flat in the same block as her parents.

It is an uphill struggle for these children to break out of poverty. How can these families be helped?

Not all poor children are like my siblings and I - blessed with hard-working parents who made sacrifices to give their children a good education and future.

Some parents we spoke to had made poor choices: repeated marriages and divorces, taking drugs and committing crimes that landed them in jail. Others were struck by illnesses rendering them unfit to work.

For some families, it may be courageous but ultimately futile to try to lift the parents out of poverty. The efforts can be focused on the children instead.

It is vital to give the children of such low-income families hope, said Mr Lawrence Tan, manager at Touch Community Services. The voluntary welfare organisation (VWO) runs a weekly tuition programme for children from poor families at 23 centres islandwide. "They start their lives disadvantaged. They need more help to break out of poverty cycle," he said.

Here are three ideas to pull the children of poor families out of poverty. One: Offer three-room HDB rental flats. The largest so-called "two room" rental flat for families has a living room and just one small bedroom. It is a squeeze for any family larger than five members. The children may sleep on mattresses on the floor. There is scant space or money for even a proper study table.

The heavily subsidised public rental housing is meant for interim help and the HDB wants even low-wage earners to own their own flat. The board is naturally fearful that once the families get used to cheap three-room rental flats, they may lack the incentive to move out.

A concession is to offer larger rental flats under strict conditions - for those with school-going children and only for the duration when the children are in school.

Two, expand the "earn and learn schemes" to secondary schools where the students are most at risk of dropping out. While it is not ideal for students to be working, those from poor families often work part-time to help the family or to earn pocket money. Schools or VWOs can introduce structured and supervised schemes to help these students juggle work and school. For example, a school can tie up with nearby employers to offer four hours of part-time work three times a week and offer tuition classes on the two days when the students are not working.

This helps firms overcome the labour crunch, allows students to earn pocket money without being exploited, and lets schools or VWOs supervise the students' progress.

Three, introduce affordable boarding schools for secondary students from low-income families. These hostels can offer a conducive environment and even a community of support that those from low-income families lack. Nothing can replace family ties, but when family support fails, a hostel environment can provide a lifeline. And secondary school is about the right age for boarding because the students are gaining their independence. Those under 12 may be too young for hostel living.

The secondary schools with boarding facilities now are mostly elite schools like ACS, Hwa Chong and Raffles Institution, and Boys Town for boys in trouble. What is needed is something in between.

These ideas merit further study. The main issue is cost: Should taxpayers foot the bill for the larger rental flats and hostels? But think of the alternative scenario: It is going to cost society much more if future generations of poor families sink their roots in rental flats, mired and trapped in poverty.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2016, with the headline Lifting families out of poverty: Focus on the children. Subscribe