We can’t ig­nore poverty any longer

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - HK COMMENT - HONG LIANG The au­thor is a se­nior ed­i­tor with China Daily. jamesle­ung@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.

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