Poverty line sets clear benchmark for all

MINISTER for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said in a parliamentary reply that a poverty line could be counter-productive ("Why setting a poverty line may not be helpful: Minister"; Wednesday).

He explained that people at the fringe of any poverty line will always be disadvantaged since "genuinely needy citizens outside the poverty lines are excluded".

According to him, poverty is a multi-dimensional issue that goes far beyond any single monetary standard. While this is true, it does not make a case against setting a relative poverty line.

There are many global metrics formulated to comprehensively measure several aspects of poverty. They include the Human Poverty Index-2 for developed countries. It not only takes into account monetary wealth, but also aspects like health, education levels and household size.

Such a poverty line would allow us to better identify households in our community with the greatest need. We would no longer have to draw arbitrary lines in the sand according to differing situations.

In the recent haze situation, households were issued N95 masks based on the per-capita income ceiling of $900. Those with incomes slightly above that are also likely to be genuinely needy, but were left out, as were those with respiratory conditions.

Any form of metric for government aid will inevitably result in groups on the margins losing out. Adopting a universal, transparent benchmark represents a promise by the Government that society is behind these households.

For the needy, this is better than having to guess if they would be eligible for certain programmes.

Moreover, it brings out the problem of income equality into the open, paving the way for both the state and citizens to forge a new way forward.

Timothy Lim Wei Chong, Reader

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.