‘Contrast Sensitivity’: An insight into poverty and inequality in one of the richest places in the world

Blog 2: The situation for the Elderly in Hong Kong

One of the first things I noticed while walking around during my first day in Hong Kong was elderly men and women pushing carts piled high with cardboard and other recyclable waste. To me, this was almost too shocking a sight to comprehend yet there is almost an invisibility to these people as they make their way among the locals and tourists, often physically struggling to push a heavy load along narrow pavements. The financial reward, for what seemed like an enormous and relentless physical effort is very little, often around 70 cents for every 1kg of waste collected. I felt it would be extremely insensitive to take a photo of any of these people but the image from Google below gives an idea of the situation.

Hong Kong’s elderly are not only the poorest people in the city; they are among the poorest in the developed world. Nearly a third of people aged 65 and over are classified as poor, according to calculations released by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service in 2013.

(Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip)

(Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip)

I met with Prof Nelson Chow, a retired Professor in the Dept of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong.  His research interests focus on older people 65+ and children’s experiences of poverty. Prof Chow explained that the Hong Kong Commission on Poverty (CoP)  was established in 2005. The CoP is a major partner of the Government working to try to alleviate poverty. The Chief Executive, CY Leung’s  vision is to encourage young people and adults to become self-reliant through employment, while putting in place a reasonable and sustainable social security and welfare system to help those who cannot provide for themselves. However, this pledge does not seem to be making the situation for the elderly in Hong Kong any easier.  Several organisations and academics, including Prof Chow, have called on the government to introduce a universal pension scheme.

Prof Chow explained to me that the government adopt an approach which enables them to do the bare minimum in terms of providing welfare and places the responsibility on families to look after each other, particularly the elderly. The average working week is 51 hours, with long commutes often adding hours on to the working day.  Food aid is also an increasing need in Hong Kong. The Government funded Food Angels is in 6 different areas across Hong Kong. People must show they are eligible against strict criteria but can only get food for 6 weeks then have to wait, effectively going hungry, until they meet the criteria again and can reapply. Prof Chow explained that there is a similar stigma surrounding food aid as there is in HK with some people believing that giving people free food will make them lazy! Very expensive housing, low wages, high youth unemployment and the stigma of claiming support, the situation is almost impossible for many families and their elderly relatives in Hong Kong.

Experiences of elderly people living in poverty in Hong Kong are examined in a comprehensive report by Oxfam Hong Kong “The living and health conditions of poor elderly people not on CSSA and their attitudes towards social security”. The research, commissioned by Oxfam and conducted by Policy 21 Limited, examines the acute poverty of elderly people in Hong Kong (data collected in 2010). The survey revealed that the average monthly expenses of poor elderly people are HK$3,904, and they earn HK$3,359 on average. This means they face a deficit of $545 every month. Despite the deficit, over 90% of the respondents, though qualified, are not receiving Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA). Among the 541 respondents aged 60+, 92.8% (413 people), though qualified, had never applied for CSSA. Common reasons included “having children’s support”, “preferring to earn their own living”, “not willing to rely on CSSA only” and “not knowing the application procedure”. The report made a number of recommendations including increasing elderly health care vouchers, providing a meal allowance to elderly people, consider a rental allowance, simplify the CSSA procedure and introduce a universal pension to provide sufficient assistance and financially sustainable retirement to all the older persons in Hong Kong.

As expensive housing seems to be a major factor contributing to poverty, the next blog will examine housing in Hong Kong in more detail.

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