'Kuih lapis' help for the poor

Instead of focusing on a single poverty line to help the needy, the Government says it is better to help across multiple lines because even middle-class families may need assistance. In an interview with The Straits Times, Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing explains how poverty is tackled the 'kuih lapis' way.

1 What is the 'kuih lapis' approach?

It means giving multiple lines of assistance across the spectrums, help schemes that layer and overlap one another.

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

Based on the proportion of Singaporeans who qualify for each of the subsidies, it would be 100th percentile for education, 80th for housing and 67th for some schemes like childcare subsidies.

2 Why won't the single line approach work?

One line doesn't help because who are poor and why they are poor are a multi-dimensional definition. A line that is defined as 40, 50 or 60 per cent of the national median income will, by mathematical definition, always yield one magic number under which everyone is considered poor.

But if the median income rises quickly because the economy is doing very well, then we end up with more poor by the definition of the line. If it declines because the economy is contracting, then we get fewer poor as defined by the poverty line.

3 How does the govt decide who needs help?

There are two groups that need help the most -the temporary poor and those who fall into hardship for different reasons. They can be helped through temporary assistance such as ComCare.

The second group is most worrying and most challenging for the Government. They are poor for a very long time and have a problem getting out. They are the chronic poor.

4 How do you help the second group?

The problem is much more complex because their poverty could be because of many factors such as drug abuse, poor financial management or ill health. And it is more worrying if they are young because they and their children could get stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Stabilising these families is not just a matter of transferring money to them, but requires a multifaceted approach - from sorting out their housing situation to helping them get a job and ensuring their children go to school.

We are not talking about a one- or two-year problem. These are people who require five to 10 years of assistance to get them out of the dark alleys.

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