We can’t ignore poverty any longer
The statement by Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam that poverty cannot be entirely eliminated may seem to make perfect sense. But it was hardly inspirational and was made at a time when what Hong Kong people needed most was inspiration.
Understandably, her statement was roundly criticized for sounding crude and uncaring. Some critics charged that it underlined the government’s failure to produce a credible plan to address the plight of the swelling ranks of the poor, some of whom are forced to live in cage homes and feed themselves by scavenging.
Even if we agree with Lam, most of us simply cannot accept that the government seems to have neither the will nor the heart to help the poor, irrespective of what contributions they made to society. It is wrong for society to turn a blind eye to frail old women, stooped with age, pushing heavy loads, sometimes uphill, on the street to make a living.
Such sights, which are not uncommon, are particularly troubling in such a highly affluent society. Results of the various surveys on poverty, even including the ones done by the government, have shown that an unacceptable proportion of people in Hong Kong live below the poverty line.
Some critics have said that the poverty line is arbitrary, rendering it meaningless. They have a point. The poverty line doesn’t take into account the widening wealth gap. On a relative basis, many more people in Hong Kong are poor.
The government is trying to address the issue by proposing to build more “affordable” housing. In doing so, it has basically written off many thousands of the poorest people, mainly the elderly and the sick, who cannot afford to buy a flat at any price.
Some social commentators have repeated the false argument that education is the key to pulling people out of poverty. There is nothing new in this. There is an old Chinese saying that can be loosely translated to mean: “there is a house of gold in books”.
But we have a problem with poverty, now. It’s simply immoral to ignore the issue, hoping it will sort itself out in future.
With all the financial resources at our disposal, we can eliminate the worst forms of poverty. Older people in Hong Kong can recall the miracle one Christmas, long ago, which resulted in the building of enough homes within a few weeks to house thousands of victims of a great fire. The people of Hong Kong didn’t eliminate poverty then. But they demonstrated the compassion, willingness and capability to help the needy.
In those days, poverty wasn’t even an issue. Survival was, and many poor people living in dangerous squatter huts on the hill sides considered themselves lucky to be in the safe haven of Hong Kong. The refugee mentality of that time has long given way to a growing sense of belonging.
But it seems our bureaucrats lack the courage to stand up to hard-hearted people in the business sector by appropriating more public funds to helping the very poor. At least, the government can produce an estimate of how much it would cost to build homes to house all those living in caged cubicles and free elderly women from punishing labor to feed themselves. I think even the Scrooge of all Hong Kong Scrooges would be too embarrassed to object publicly to such spending.