The picture above is entitled ‘Visible vs. Invisible’ by Lai Yat Nam and was displayed at ‘Poverty. Full-time.’ An art exhibition on working poverty.
According to the Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report for 2020, before policy intervention, 23.6 per cent of Hong Kong’s population – 1.653 million people – live in poverty. The causes of poverty are interrelated, and that is why Oxfam Hong Kong (OHK) works on a variety of issues. Besides conducting research on poverty among the elderly, women, the working class and ethnic minorities, for instance, we also conduct policy research to help the public better understand Hong Kong’s poverty issues. In 2016, Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient stood at 0.539 before taxes and transfers, and 0.479 after – the highest in 45 years. Among developed countries and regions, Hong Kong has the greatest wealth disparity.
OHK believes inequality breeds poverty; the Hong Kong Inequality Report we published in 2018 backed up this claim as it pointed out that systemic problems like unjust policies fuel poverty in Hong Kong. As such, we at OHK have been undertaking various advocacy initiatives.
For instance, we have been urging the government to take the basic cost of living into account when calculating the poverty threshold. The government set the poverty line at 50 per cent of the median household income by household size in 2013, so in 2019 the household poverty lines for one-person and two-person households are HK$4,500 and HK$10,000 respectively. The official poverty line should be able to help measure poverty, however, because it does not take into account households’ basic living expenses, it is not a very helpful indicator. As such, we interviewed and calculated the basic cost of living for different demographic groups and household sizes based on the groceries they would need to buy to cook nutritionally balanced meals. Studies like this have helped society at large gain a better understanding of poverty and the needs of the poor.
Hong Kong's Housing Woes
According to the 'Report of the Task Force for the Study on Tenancy Control of Subdivided Units' in 2021, there were 100,943 subdivided flats that housed more than 226,000 residents. To solve the housing problem, the government should develop different kinds of community housing in the short term to provide temporary residence for low-income families on the public rental housing waiting list. In long term, the government should work on the planning and development of brownfield sites. They should accelerate the planning progress to confirm the land sizes of different public housing projects and increase the public housing ratio.
According to the OHK research report ‘Impacts of extreme weather on subdivided flat residents’ in 2021, nearly 80 per cent of respondents had lived in their subdivided flat for over five years, while 35 per cent had lived in their flat for eight years or more. On average, respondents paid over HK$4,700 a month for rent. The average rent per square foot was close to HK$40, which is around HK$4.5 more than the average rent per square foot for private housing in Hong Kong.
Help the poorest adapt to climate change
Climate change affects us all, but the poorest are the bearing the brunt of its effects. Although the government is committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, it has not formulated specific climate adaptation goals and measures geared towards the poor. OHK urges the Hong Kong government to develop policies to support those living in subdivided flats/poor living conditions adapt to climate change, and speed up the construction of public housing to help subdivided flat residents cope with increasingly frequent extreme weather events.
Oxfam Hong Kong research report
Life of a street cleaner in the intense heat (Photo credit: Cho Man Wai/Oxfam Hong Kong)
On 8 December 2020, OHK released ‘Hong Kong Poverty Report: Unemployment among the poor during COVID-19’. It revealed that the number of unemployed people from poor households (i.e. those whose monthly income is lower than half of the median household income in Hong Kong) rose to around 110,000 In Q2, three-quarters of which could be outside the safety net of the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme. As such, we urged the government to:
- offer a short-term unemployment allowance not less than HK$5,000 a month for at least half a year
- lower the minimum working hours required for the Working Family Allowance to 36 hours, so casual workers can also benefit from it, and double the allowance
- make use of idle land and support the development of bazaars
- study the feasibility of establishing unemployment insurance
Establish a Basic Cost of Living Expenses Line
The official poverty line should be able to help measure poverty, however, because it does not take into account households’ basic living expenses, it is not a very helpful indicator. As such, we interviewed and calculated the basic cost of living for different demographic groups and household sizes based on the groceries they would need to buy to cook nutritionally balanced meals. Studies like this have helped society at large gain a better understanding of poverty and the needs of the poor. The government should make reference to this index in when adjusting their financial policies and the minimum wage, and establishing, such as allowances and minimum a living wage.
Through our research, we have pinpointed problems causing/fueling poverty, and have launched projects that cater to different groups of people. For instance, we have been working to promote bazaars as an alternative livelihood option to alleviate poverty among women from poor backgrounds. To help ethnic minorities gain equal access to opportunities, we have also developed a project for non-Chinese speaking students to learn Chinese. During COVID-19, we launched online Chinese learning games and stories, so the children could learn at home, and set up a WhatsApp group so students’ parents would receive this and other information. During the pandemic, we also launched a meal kit project so that families with children living in subdivided flats would have access to nutritious meals.
With the experience we gain from our pilot projects, we test effective poverty alleviation methods and implement initiatives. We also educate the public about poverty, and urge the government to create a human economy and address poverty through holistic policies. We fight poverty through our experiences of launching effective programs and educating the public.
Give a Meal: Oxfam's Food Support Project for Low-Income Families
Thinking Outside the Box About Subdivided Flats
Yin, her husband and their 11-year-old son live in a subdivided flat barely 100 square feet.
Sky high property prices and rents have left Hong Kong’s 226,000 low-income population with no choice but to live in cramped subdivided flats. This not only makes life inconvenient, but also puts pressure on these families psychologically.
Since 2017, Oxfam has been supporting the ELCHK Tai Wo Integrated Youth Service Centre to implement home improvement projects in subdivided flats in which low-income families live.
Yin is one of participants of this project. Despite the fact that she, her husband and their 11-year-old son live in a subdivided flat in Tai Po that’s barely 100 square feet, half of the family’s income is spent on rent and utility fees alone. Aside from the bedroom and washroom, there’s only a narrow corridor that acts as a makeshift living room, which fits a small table; the rest of the family’s sundries are usually placed under the table.
Through this project, we helped Yin install a shelf and a bookcase, and mounted the TV, which was originally on top of the fridge, to the bedroom wall. This has given Yin and her family more storage space.
Children from families like Yin’s often find it difficult to learn English. In June 2017, Yin’s son joined ELCHK Tai Wo Integrated Youth Service Centre’s English classes, which have not only helped him improve his English, but also get to know the centre’s social workers and other children. Yin said, ‘He really likes going to the centre. He joins whatever activities they have whenever he has time.’
We at Oxfam also support the centre’s parent groups for those who live in subdivided flats as well as activities that help them learn more about Hong Kong. Yin has participated in these groups, and has visited Deaf Cafeteria with the centre. This project has not only improved Yin’s living space, but has also helped her expand her social circle. She told us, ‘After joining these activities, I’ve become much happier. I’ve also come to see that Hong Kong’s actually a hospitable and warm city.’
Not only are we working to improve the homes of 50 families through this project, we’ve also brought parents who live in subdivided flats to meet a member of the Legislative Council to speak up about the issues they face living in these flats. Through opportunities like this, we hope to help the public and government better understand and pay greater attention to housing issues in Hong Kong.
Turn caring into action
Rethink Poverty audio stories
There’s more to poverty than meets the eye. That’s why we’re inviting the public to rethink it on 17 October – the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty – and beyond, and to fight it with us.
OHK put together four stories about poverty with StoryTeller. Through these stories, based on real events, we hope to reveal the everyday realities of poverty. Visit the Rethink Poverty page here
#RethinkPoverty ep1: Street Sweeper
(Narrated by Terence Lam)
'Many believe that poverty is hunger and homelessness. But there are many different kinds of poverty. Poverty can even make you experience the heat more intensely than those who are well-off.'
Fair the Sheep: Advocacy and Public Education Activities
'Fairness isn't about everyone getting the same outcome, but having equal opportunities.'
- Cecilia Yeung, Hong Kong female high jump record holder
Cecilia joined our ‘Fair the Sheep advocacy and public education activities’ in 2018. Here, she walks up six stories to visit Kit, a boy who lives with his family in a subdivided flat.
Grant for Good: Oxfam Hong Kong Poverty Alleviation Social Innovation – Grant-making & Capacity Building Programme