HOW far can a student stretch his pocket money? Quite far, based on a survey of those receiving an allowance from The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund (SPMF).
A study by two National University of Singapore (NUS) academics has found that they use it primarily to pay for food and drinks in school, as well as transport.
The result: They go to school regularly and take part in school activities - with no fear of going hungry.
They also use the money to buy stationery, books and supplementary educational material. Six in 10 even have some money left at the end of the month.
Ms Bertha Henson, associate editor of The Straits Times and organising chairman of the SPMF, said she was glad that the beneficiaries were using the money for its intended purpose: to get to school and stay in school. The study showed that donors can rest assured of the effects of their generosity, she said.
'Too often when we give to charity, we don't know whether our money has been put to good use. The study shows that the SPMF plays an important part in the lives of needy households.'
The researchers surveyed 400 children and their parents for the study, which was commissioned by The Straits Times and the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) to gauge the impact of the fund on its beneficiaries.
The study by Dr Chang-Keun Han and Dr David Rothwell - both of whom have since left the NUS department of social work - also included a survey of 153 social workers and staff from agencies which disburse the money, and in-depth interviews with 35 benefiting families.
Those with a household income of $450 per capita or less are eligible for help from the SPMF. It has helped more than 85,000 cases since it was launched 11 years ago.
Primary school pupils now receive $55 a month, and secondary school students get $90. This is $10 more than when the research was conducted, from last March to March this year.
Most parents said they use the money to pay urgent bills before putting the rest aside for the children. Some give their children as little as $10 a month from the money they receive, while others top it up to $100.
Some parents also distribute some of the money among their other children who do not meet the fund's criteria.
Recipient families said they felt less troubled about the possibility of their children going hungry, or not having the bus fare for school.
This was echoed by recipients who did not take part in the research, such as Mr C. K. Wong, 45, who is unemployed because he is suffering from lung cancer.
He now gets $110 in total for his two primary school children, aged seven and eight. The divorcee, who has sole custody of his children, said in Mandarin: 'Life is still difficult but at least it can help them with school, with breakfast and something to eat in the afternoon.'
He wants his children to make it through school. Said Mr Wong: 'Sometimes I feel like giving up, but I hold on because of my children.'
In their report, the researchers cited one parent who told interviewers that her daughter now attends school regularly. 'Before this pocket money, we sometimes don't have money to give her. We want her to go to school, but then what is she going to eat in school?'
The researchers also checked 134 school report cards. Of 37 students who had failing grades before they went on the fund, 15 - or about 40 per cent - achieved a pass grade after receiving pocket money. Participation in co-curricular activities also went up.
One finding surprised some social workers interviewed: That students had savings and were intent on saving some of the money they received. Four in 10 had savings goals and more than half kept track of their spending.
Mr Peter Chang, executive director of the Pasir Ris Family Service Centre, said: 'Coming from a family with financial difficulties, learning this skill at an early age will help prevent the poverty cycle from repeating itself in their generation.'
Dr Rothwell said that while SPMF was not designed to encourage savings, the results suggested there was potential to build on it.
Ms Tina Hung, deputy chief executive of the NCSS, which administers the fund, said: 'The study will help to improve our approaches in reaching out to fulfil the needs of families requiring help, and ensures that the fund continues to stay effective.'