Tackling poverty the 'kuih lapis' way

Tackling poverty the 'kuih lapis' way
Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing says Singapore's approach to helpingthe poor cannot be so simple as to be based on just one measure.

Blue, green and red pen markers in hand, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing drew up a chart on a big sheet of paper, like an economics professor explaining a concept to his class.

He had called for the interview at the office of his ministry last Friday in the hope of resolving once and for all a contentious debate over how best to help the needy.

First, he makes it clear, any measure - be it the Gini co-efficient that tracks income inequality, or an absolute or relative poverty line to measure the number of poor - has its flaws or quirks and can give a very false picture of the situation in a country. So approach with caution.

Second, any solution to helping those in need must go far beyond the numbers as each individual and family has complex problems that numbers cannot decipher.

Singapore's approach too cannot be too simple. A single definition of poverty such as a poverty line based on a fraction of median income may create more problems than it solves, he says.

Instead of a single poverty line or even a single layer of assistance, Singapore favours giving multiple lines of assistance to help Singaporeans across the spectrum, in help schemes that are layered and overlapping with one another.

Pointing to the chart which he had just drawn judiciously, he pronounces matter-of-factly: "The kuih lapis."

In front of him are 18 layers of different sizes - from the largest running the entire length of the x-axis to the smallest, representing how many Singaporeans benefit from the myriad government schemes.

Each layer represents the various types of benefits handed out by the Government to Singaporeans from different income groups.

Going down the list, he says: "100 percentile for education, 80th percentile for housing, 67th percentile for some of our schemes like childcare subsidies." He is referring to the proportion of Singaporeans who qualify for each of these subsidies.

"Next, you have Workfare. Then you have the national ComCare assistance scheme, followed by Public Assistance."

Workfare tops up the income of workers earning less than $1,900 a month and ComCare provides short- and medium-term assistance for those who are temporarily unable to work and have a monthly household income of $1,700 and below or a per capita income of up to $550.

Public Assistance (PA) is for those who cannot work and have no family support, usually the elderly. A single adult gets $450 a month, while a household of two adults and two children gets $1,480.

What this all means is that while Singapore has no official measurement of what constitutes poverty here, there are in fact many yardsticks as indicated in his hand-drawn, rainbow-coloured kuih lapis.

"This is our philosophy of having multiple lines of assistance across the entire spectrum rather than having one line," he says.

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