“More than one in five Hongkongers, or 1.65 million people, were living in poverty in 2020, the most since record-keeping began 12 years ago, new government figures have revealed.”
OUCH! NEWS REPORTS of the latest income statistics in Hong Kong painted a grim picture of a city with a record number of poor. The quote above was from the South China Morning Post, but many similar reports were printed.
While probably everyone agrees that poor people exist and we should be concerned about them, the impression given is wrong.
It’s not true that almost one in four Hongkongers are living in poverty.
What has actually happened is that our community has been going through tough times, but has lifted 1.099 million people out of poverty, and we did it during a recession.
ROOTS OF THE ERROR
In their recent reports, the press repeatedly used phrases such as “below the poverty line”. The globally accepted international poverty line is US$1.90 a day. That works out as HK$14 a day, or HK$420 a month. It needs to be clearly said that Hong Kong does not follow that definition.
We deliberately give ourselves a much harder target. We define everyone who earns half the average income as poor. At the moment, the average household income for a couple with two children in this city is just over HK$40,000 a month, so the poverty line for such a family is HK$21,000. If you earn less than that, you are entitled to public money and in-kind benefits on top of your earnings.
Second, the “1.65 million people living in poverty” line that the media chose for their headlines was misleading. Reporters quoted a figure showing the estimated theoretical number of Hong Kong people earning less than 50 per cent of median income, as if it was the actual reported number of poor.
That number might be valid if there was no welfare system of any kind. But of course there has long been a highly active support system in Hong Kong for decades, and numerous interventions made on top of that.
The actual number of low-income people in Hong Kong identified by the latest data (the report for 2020) is 554,000, just one third of the figure headlined by the news media.
But here’s the big news: that 554,000 is a fall of 88,000 compared to a year earlier: an extraordinary achievement for our community during very difficult times.
“The number of overall poor households has gone down 45,000 to 242,000,” said Kevin Lau, a non-official member of the Commission on Poverty. He points out that that is “a significant drop”, given the huge economic problems of the period.
EXPECTING THE WORST
And that leads us to the third thing the media missed.
Almost every economy on the planet had a difficult year in 2020-2021, and Hong Kong has had three years of misery, thanks to the social unrest of 2019 – so we were expecting much worse figures. Thus the recently released statistics were actually very positive news.
Statisticians measure “poverty alleviation impacts”, and Hong Kong has done well. “A total of 461,000 households and 1.099 million people were lifted out of poverty,” said Lau.
ISSUE OF POOR YOUTH
Lifting a million people out of poverty during a recession is not easy. Our community is achieving something worth noting, but Lau admits there’s still much to do. “We do need to pay more attention to the issue of poor youth,” he said.
Poverty commission people note that the government spent a breathtaking HK$300 billion on relief measures during Hong Kong’s dark times, using money “saved for a rainy day”.
But in the year ahead, the community will have to get back to work and not expect handouts. The rain, we hope, is stopping.
Click here to get full data on the poverty report in Hong Kong
Image at the top by John Tenholder/ Unsplash