Growing number of young Singaporeans in need, relying on Government handouts

Growing number of them relying on handouts - accounting for one in five recipients of ComCare; rise of gig economy may worsen situation

Ms Chloe Lin (not her real name) at the office of voluntary welfare organisation Beyond Social Services. Twice divorced, she struggles to hold on to a job and now lives in a one-room rental flat in Ang Mo Kio with her daughter. She gets $360 a month
Ms Chloe Lin (not her real name) at the office of voluntary welfare organisation Beyond Social Services. Twice divorced, she struggles to hold on to a job and now lives in a one-room rental flat in Ang Mo Kio with her daughter. She gets $360 a month from ComCare. ST PHOTO: JANICE TAI

Three months ago, Ms Chloe Lin (not her real name) splurged on a big-ticket item. It was her daughter's 11th birthday.

Ms Lin, 33, bought a mango vanilla cake decorated with characters from the movie Frozen. It cost her $50 - one-seventh of the $360 she got a month from ComCare, Singapore's social aid scheme for the poor and needy.

But for Ms Lin, it was worth it. "It's her favourite cartoon and flavour," she said simply.

Having dropped out of school in Secondary 2, Ms Lin struggles to hold on to a job. Her longest stint was as a property telemarketer from 2010 to 2013, earning $7 an hour. But when the sector slowed, she was let go. Twice divorced, she now lives in a one-room rental flat in Ang Mo Kio with her daughter.

Last year, Ms Lin applied for and received ComCare help. For nine months, the monthly stipend was all the pair had to live on.

Ms Lin is among a growing number of young Singaporeans who are in need and having to rely on the Government for handouts.

Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) data shows that 5,644 young households - with applicants aged below 35, the official definition of youth - received ComCare's short- to medium-term financial aid in the financial year of 2015.

This is a 40 per cent jump from the 4,016 young households who got such ComCare aid in 2012 - the earliest year that age-segregated data was made public. By contrast, the number of older households whose applicants are aged 35 to 59 went up less - by 34.9 per cent.

Over the years, the Government has become more generous in administering ComCare, bumping up cases. Families now get help when they have a monthly household income of $1,900 or less, or a per capita income of under $650, among other criteria.

But what experts say is troubling is that young Singaporeans account for one in five recipients - a proportion that has not budged despite government efforts such as student care and skills-upgrading subsidies.

It is also just a shade under the share that older Singaporeans aged 60 and above form (these do not include those who get long-term help due to illnesses or disabilities).

The numbers also surprised Ms Rachel Lee, a principal social worker at Fei Yue Family Service Centre. The social worker has seen more younger families seeking help at the centre, but was taken aback when told that the proportion is similar to those 60 and older.

"They may not be the majority but if we don't help these young families break out of the vicious circle, they can get trapped in it, especially those with dependants," she said.

Another set of data also suggests that the problem of poverty among young Singaporeans can be quite intractable. More so than other age groups, they seem more stubbornly stuck with low wages.

Manpower Ministry data shows that last year, there were fewer employed residents aged 15 and above earning a gross monthly income of $1,000 and less, compared to 2015. However, those aged 25 to 34 registered the smallest percentage point drop, meaning that younger workers are slower in breaking out of this low-income bracket compared to other age groups.

There are 41,500 people aged between 15 and 34 who earn under $1,000 a month as of last June.

There are two reasons why some young Singaporeans are in difficulties, say those interviewed.

One is that some struggle to move out of the poverty trap - they are either born into poverty and remain mired in it, or are stuck in jobs that just do not pay enough.

Mr Muhd Alfian K., 30, who has O-level qualifications, is one of them. A crane operator, his life revolves around hitting a target of loading and unloading at least 52 containers within a 12-hour shift. His salary will then be bumped up to $2,000.

This translates into a take-home pay of $1,600 for his family of five.

His wife Irah Nurshahrani, 26, tried to help by taking on jobs such as a hotel housekeeper and a petrol station cashier. But she has had to move from job to job after taking too many days off to care for their children, aged one, two and three. "He works long hours and I try to get work too but it is hard and the money is not enough."

They received $100 in ComCare help for three months last year.

Two, more young Singaporeans are poor because more are now unemployed.

The jobless rate for those below 30 years old has risen over the years and was at 5 per cent last year, double that of other age groups.

An MSF spokesman explained why the young seek assistance: "Some are unable to secure employment due to caregiving needs for young dependants and may require financial assistance in the interim. There are others who might be facing family issues such as divorce, incarceration or violence and require assistance while their family stabilises as they are unable to work."

Looking into the future, the picture is muddied by the rise of the gig economy, displacing traditional jobs. For now, some young workers - tech-savvy and physically fit - are riding the wave and seeing their incomes rise. But their long-term financial health is far from certain.

The authorities worry about the 200,000 gig economy workers here because many lack statutory protections and benefits, including CPF contributions. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said last year that they face risks such as wage instability and not having enough for retirement.

Warned labour economist Hui Weng Tat: "The gig economy is going to aggravate the social and job-related causes of poverty. Retrenchment due to job obsolescence and job disappearance will increase."

So what is to be done?

Ensure they remain employed, and help them remain employable, said labour economist Randolph Tan, a Nominated MP. Measures such as job placement help and re-skilling need to be significantly stepped up, said Singapore Management University's law don Eugene Tan.

To better help those already in a rut, some social workers will soon be trained to help low-income families better manage their finances.

Meanwhile, those in the gig economy should get a hand to build up their CPF savings, such as incentives for voluntary top-up, say some such as Dr Tan Wu Meng, an MP for Jurong GRC .

Above all, experts and social workers said there should be urgency in tackling the issues faced by Singapore's young and working poor. Otherwise, warned Prof Randolph Tan: "We could see the beginnings of a social catastrophe."

•Additional reporting by Kok Xing Hui

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 23, 2017, with the headline Growing number of young Singaporeans in need, relying on Government handouts. Subscribe