Tracking the poor without using a poverty line

Tracking the poor without using a poverty line

Ms Peh Kim Choo, director of the Hua Mei Centre for Successful Ageing, works with older folk, many of whom are poor. She would like to know how much income an older person requires to meet his daily needs for food, clothing, shelter and care.

Knowing that is essential in drawing up estimates for costs of care in a rapidly ageing society, she says. Her centre provides both home and community care for older folk.

Chief executive Catherine Loh from the Community Foundation of Singapore, who administers charitable funds for philanthropists, would welcome more data on the demography and geographic locations of Singapore's poorest households.

Two reports released by the Government in recent weeks - the five-yearly Household Expenditure Survey and the ComCare Annual Report - have provided some useful data on low-income families.

But neither is designed to provide a complete picture of the numbers of poorer households in our midst. Thus, despite more than 350 pages of publicly released information, because of the way the data is collected, many of Ms Peh's and Ms Loh's questions remain unanswered.

The Household Expenditure Survey, released by the Department of Statistics, shows that there were 66,000 households living in one- and two-room Housing Board flats in 2012/2013, up from 48,000 five years earlier. The majority of them don't own their homes, but rent from the HDB at subsidised rates. Overall, incomes for those living in one- and two-room flats have grown substantially over the past decade and have outpaced expenditure.

Significantly, while assessing income, the survey considers work, as well as non-work sources such as regular social assistance payments from the Government, Central Provident Fund payouts for retirees and so on.

The latest ComCare report, released by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, provides data on those who receive help from the Government's ComCare fund, set up in 2005 to provide financial assistance to needy families. A total of 72,000 Singaporeans and their families were helped under various ComCare schemes in the last financial year, the report said.

So, where are the crucial gaps in information on the poor?

Let's consider the Household Expenditure Survey first. Its data on one- and two-room households is a useful proxy indicator of lower-income families. Yet, this group comprises not just families who rent flats and have no assets, but also those who do own their flats.

Around 19,000 households living in one- and two-room flats have no working member, but there is no specific data on how much this group earns. We also don't know the income from all sources of the nearly 120,000 households in the bottom 10 per cent of the income scale. Data from the bottom fifth, however, is available - and it shows that these approximately 238,000 households spend more than they earn.

This appears to be sobering news, but retiree households form nearly a quarter of this group. Some could be financing their expenditure through irregular income such as proceeds from property sales and capital gains from investment. Many in the bottom fifth could also be living in four-room or bigger flats. Are they really poor? If so, could they sell their flats and downgrade? Or, are they simply folk who, despite not much regular income, have enough assets and savings to live comfortably?

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