Setting a poverty line may not be helpful

Singaporeans Against Poverty

Singaporeans against poverty

After being asked again in Parliament, Singapore's government has emerged to put their foot down on poverty, this time to reinforce their stance against setting a poverty line. (You can read what Minister Chan Chun Sing said on the matter in the link below.)

This has sparked a new, and very timely, debate--and it comes just after Hong Kong set its poverty line at half the median household income level according to household size. That, in turn, translates into 1.3 million or one-fifth of its population living on HK$14,300 ($2,300) in monthly income for a four-person household.

So in the spirit of debate, we want to know what you think. Should Singapore define a poverty line? What are the pros and cons of doing so? Share your thoughts with us in a comment below. We're following closely what you guys are saying, even if we don't respond directly!

Singapore poverty in the spotlight

Poverty in Singapore affects an unknown number of families [Xu Yuan Duan/Growing Up with Less]

Begging is illegal here, under the island-nation's Destitute Persons Act, carrying a fine of up to $3,000 or imprisonment for up to two years for repeat offenders

But Singapore's poor still can be found, often selling packets of tissues outside food centres. Or spending the night on benches near their jobs to save the transport fare home - they are commonly called "sleepers". Or collecting empty soft drink cans out of trash bins. 

The poor have no place in Singapore's vaunted success story, but there are growing calls for one of the wealthiest countries in the world to acknowledge rapidly rising income inequality by setting an official poverty line. Hong Kong's recent decision to set a poverty line as a way to better identify and assist its poor has prompted a similar debate in Singapore's parliament.

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Minister Chan Chun Sing: Broader definition of poverty reflects better the complexity of issues

Mr Chan said different nations tailor their methods to identify and help their needy according to their circumstances, and other developed ones such as New Zealand and Canada also do not subscribe to official poverty lines. -- ST FILE PHOTO

Singapore is not considering having an official poverty line, as it would not fully reflect the severity and complexity of issues faced by the poor, and may also lead to those above the line missing out on assistance. 

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing made these points on Monday, amid renewed calls for Singapore to look into having one after Hong Kong set an official poverty line last month.

In a written parliamentary reply, he said the Government's approach is to use broad definitions for the groups it seeks to help, set clear criteria to identify and assess those in need, and come up with tailored schemes.

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Govt rejects poverty line, says prosperity line better for social objective

The government was today baffled by calls from social workers and experts to define an official poverty line, when the problem had been declared extinct a good twelve years ago.

It was in 2001 when former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani proudly told the world: “There are no homeless, destitute or starving people in Singapore. Poverty has been eradicated.”

With such a bold proclamation coming from a respected thought leader and current Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, government officials have since operated on the premise that poor people exist only in third world countries.

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Rebutting Chan’s argument for not setting poverty line

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.

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387,187 IN POVERTY?

I refer to the article “Median household income rose to $7,870 last year, inequality down” (Straits Times, Feb 18).

Real median household income rose 1.6% - It states that “Median household income rose to $7,870 last year, 4 per cent up from 2012, according to a Department of Statistics releaseon Tuesday. After accounting for inflation, the rise was 1.6 per cent from 2012.” According to the Key Household Income Trends 2013 report released today – the Median Household Income from Work Per Household Member only increased in real terms by 1.9% per annum, from 2008 to 2013, lower than the 3.2% per annum from 2003 to 2008.

Income per household member of the 3 lowest deciles? - Average Monthly Household Income from Work Per Household Member Among Resident Employed Households by Deciles – 1st to 10th, 11th to 20th and 21st to 3oth deciles were only $463, $896 and $1,268, respectively last year.


Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing had said that the government doesn’t want to define a poverty line in Singapore.
  • But what exactly is the poverty rate in Singapore?
  • How has it grown over the past 10 years and how will it continue to grow?
  • Also, how does Singapore compare to the other high-income countries, and the lower-income countries in the Southeast Asian regions?
According to a new study by the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Social Work Department, “the working poor in Singapore … is defined as someone earning less than half of the average monthly income of a Singaporean, which now stands at S$3,000.” This is similar to what the World Bank had defined as the poverty line, which “could be set at 50 percent of the country’s mean income or consumption“. ”As such, the poverty line in Singapore would be someone who earns less than S$1,500 every month.

If you look at the CPF Annual Report in 2011, where the distribution of the monthly wages of Singaporeans were last available (the government omitted this information from 2012), 458,257 Singaporeans were earning less than S$1,500 every month. This represents 26% of the Singaporean and PR population (Chart 1)

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One quarter of Singapore households below poverty lineSource:  Key Household Income Trends 2012, by Dept of Statistics
In reply to Non-constituency Member of Parliament Yee Jeng Jong (Workers’ Party), Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing ruled out having an official poverty line. He said it would not fully reflect the severity and complexity of issues faced by the poor, and may also lead to needy persons who happen to be above the line missing out on assistance. The full text of the question and written parliamentary reply is as follows:
Parliamentary sitting, 21 October 2013
Question by Yee Jeng Jong: 
To ask the Minister for Social and Family Development whether the Government plans to introduce an official poverty line adapted from international practice to identify at-risk households and to measure the performance of governmental and non-governmental efforts in helping them leave the poverty cycle.
Written Answer by Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Social and Family Development:
Different countries tailor their methods to identify and assist their needy according to their circumstance. Even amongst developed countries, New Zealand and Canada do not subscribe to official poverty lines. In Singapore, we use broad definitions for the groups we seek to help, have clear criteria to identify and assess those in need, and tailored schemes to assist them. A poverty line does not fully reflect the severity and complexity of the issues faced by poor families, which could include ill health, lack of housing or weak family relationships. If we use a single poverty line to assess the family, we also risk a ‘cliff effect’, where those below the poverty line receive all forms of assistance, while other genuinely needy citizens outside the poverty line are excluded. Our assessment process is rigorous but also flexible to cater to the genuinely needy. Singaporeans who do not meet scheme criteria but who still deserve help, can receive assistance.
Link to press release at Ministry of Social and Family Development website
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26% Of Singaporeans Live Below Poverty Line In Singapore

According to The Straits Times, the “Singapore (government) is not considering having an official poverty line, as it would not fully reflect the severity and complexity of issues faced by the poor, and may also lead to those above the line missing out on assistance.”

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing had said that, “A poverty line does not fully reflect the severity and complexity of the issues faced by poor families, which could include ill health, lack of housing or weak family relationships. If we use a single poverty line to assess the family, we also risk a ‘cliff effect’, where those below the poverty line receive all forms of assistance, while other genuinely needy citizens outside the poverty line are excluded.”

This is not the first time that the government had been asked what our poverty line is. In 2011, when asked, Chan Chun Sing had said that, “Different countries adopt different approaches to help those in need, depending on their own unique situations.” He had also said that, “Other countries such as Canada do not have a poverty line, but adopt an income threshold, determined using family expenditure data, in guiding its assessment of the populace’s needs.”

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Singapore must define poverty, say experts

A team of researchers and poverty experts at the Singapore Management University (SMU) says it is time Singapore joined other developed nations in officially defining and measuring poverty.

Doing so could lead to greater public support for efforts to help vulnerable communities, they say in a paper from the Lien Centre for Social Innovation.

"Many Singaporeans may not be aware of the scale and depth of poverty in Singapore," said poverty expert John Donaldson from SMU's School of Social Sciences, one of the key collaborators on the paper. "We hope our research can help people to understand the nature of the problem, its causes and possible solutions."


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There is no poverty (line) in Singapore

Singapore has no beggers because they will be picked up by the police before long. We have no poverty, because Singapore has no official poverty line. This is the same as saying that Singapore’s TV license fee is “one of the lowest” in the world, without revealing the fact that many countries do not charge for TV license fees at all. Technically it remains correct that Singapore has one of the lowest license fees since there aren’t many countries out there that charge for it anyway.

Similarly, we can also say that Singapore has free speech because we’ve got the Speaker’s Corner, Hong Lim Park where anybody can say anything without getting arrested (but still face the prospects of being crushed with civil defamation lawsuits).

If 3 years of university education in “one of the world’s top”, “world class” university here in Singapore has taught me anything, it has taught me how not to be deceived by mere statistics or unsubstantiated claims. It has also taught me to view mainstream media reports with skepticism.

No Poverty Line Please, We Are Singaporeans

Not only is his EQ level suspect, the keechiu general may need to have his IQ reassessed. Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said that "Singapore is not considering having an official poverty line, as it would not fully reflect the severity and complexity of issues faced by the poor, and may also lead to those above the line missing out on assistance."

The real catastrophe the Mad-dog General is trying to sweep under the carpet is the Pandora's Box that will be opened. Hong Kong's government-appointed Commission on Poverty has set its first poverty line at half of the median monthly household income. By doing so, it is boldly confronting the problems of wealth gap, labour disquiet, housing affordability and myriad problems that come about when the rich have too much, while the poor are ignored. Politicians may tell you different, money is a zero sum game. The MG does not have the cajones to face facts like the top 1% in Singapore has an annual salary that is more than 58 times that of the bottom 3.4%

In economics, cliff effect is the disproportionately positive or negative result of an action. In telecommunications, the (digital) cliff effect or brickwall effect describes the sudden loss of digital signal reception, where the digital signal "falls off a cliff" instead of having a gradual rolloff. Chan's version is that by  using a single poverty line to assess the family status, those below the poverty line will receive all forms of assistance, while other genuinely needy citizens outside the poverty line will be excluded. Well, the means test - which Khaw Boon Wan promised not to implement, then went ahead after the elections - has already afflicted that kind of damage several times over.

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Chan Chun Sing: No to Poverty Line

I find Chan Chun Sing's reasons for not agreeing to a poverty line facetious. If he were minister in MTI there will be many hard indicators across many activities and deliverables.

Setting a poverty line only serves to add and not subtract from what we are doing to help the poor. On the other hand other ministries probably have far too many indicators, KPIs etc., euphemisms for 'Poverty Line' as an indicator.

They famously repeated as convenient what you can't measure, you can't manage. Guess they don't want to manage poverty. It would be callous but sometime one wonders if the government would not privately wish the poor would die off quickly and cheaply because dedicating resources to them is like wasting money since there is no hard returns. I think their attitude is like the American Republican Party. If you are poor it is because you are lazy and may be stupid as well. If we have too many of them then the average IQ and competitiveness of our society goes down. Familiar LKY's logic but only he has the candor to tell it to our face and the unfortunate stubborn as mule attitude when the science lacks the conviction of the physical laws. We paid heavily for his prejudice.

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Singapore not considering poverty line assessment, WTF?

Is this where SG is heading?

Poverty line is a hand in hand assessment along with GDP to gauge how well a govt is running the country, you shouldnt have one without the other. For the longest time since 2005, it has become more apparent that Singapore is being run like an institution rather than like a country and with all the fixation about KPI, shouldnt then poverty line should be part of a good governing body's KPI? You keep talking about people falling through the cracks, we know that. However, exactly HOW MANY people are falling through the cracks with your vision? How do we know if the country is truly doing better or worse without any statistics to back your claim?

Otherwise to give an analogy, it will be like a highly paid self-acclaimed (but rather irresponsible) top surgeon trumpeting his own horns, crowing only about one's success op stories but neglecting to share how many failed ops he has. Given a 100 patients, what's the point of saving 20 patients but failing the other 80? Is that still a desirable doctor?

So, when I read the extract quote above, my first reaction was.."WTF?" Honestly, I dont really get this statement. How does establishing a poverty line statistics deprive other genuine citizens outside the line? Hello? Social services are run by man, not robots. Human can be flexible. You mean you cant help genuine cases because they are above a yardstick estimate and you need to stick to the line? You think this is classroom marking system? Where 50 is strictly the passing mark and anything under is failure?  Social services should render help regardless to genuine cases even for borderline cases, no? That's why we have case by case assessment isnt it? The ability to use their discretion and compassion. Otherwise what do you think civil service officers are for? Just to fill up forms and answer emails and voice mails?

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3 factors that help everyone understand why the poverty of S’pore’s poverty data is absurd

Do you know why it doesn’t make sense that poverty data in Singapore should be so hard to come by?

It may come as a shock to some people when you tell them that there is poverty in Singapore. But you know, and I know, poverty is universal and Singapore is definitely not immune to this problem. But what’s truly shocking is the poverty of Singapore’s poverty data.

In fact, record-keeping in this area is so bad that experts who study the poverty issue here are bemoaning the fact they don’t have readily available information to make sense of the scope of the problem.

And this shouldn’t be the case because Singapore mines a wealth of data from GDP numbers to how many people pass through our borders to how many children each race is having a year.

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Defining poverty in Singapore is more than just the ‘cliff effect’

A man sells tissue packets on Orchard Road in Singapore. (Yahoo photo)

It’s no secret that Singapore is a rich country. In 2012, it was found to be the richest country in the world.

But despite the expensive clubs and the glamourous Formula 1 races, not everyone in Singapore is enjoying an ultra-rich lifestyle. Although unemployment is fairly low, studies have shown that a considerable number of people in Singapore can be considered the "working poor" – struggling to make ends meet despite having jobs.

With inequality becoming a real worry, the government is still loathe to define poverty. Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Social and Family Development, has now said that an official poverty line might be unhelpful as it poses the danger of a "cliff effect", where welfare schemes are only made available to those below the line while ignoring others in need of support.

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Being Poor Is Your Own Fault

At the dinner table was a friend holding a USA passport, trying to explain the 401K system. He also compared Social Security with our CPF system, the key difference being that CPF is our own individual money. Social Security is a pool, from which the needy has access to contributions from the well off. If your CPF account can't even meet with Minimum Sum requirements, even Bill Gates can't help you. With CPF, you die, your problem.

The Economist really nailed it when they wrote about "The Stingy Nanny", providing the best quote about the (lack of) welfare in Singapore:
"The state's attitude can be simply put: being poor here is your own fault. Citizens are obliged to save for the future, rely on their families and not expect any handouts from the government unless they hit rock bottom. The emphasis on family extends into old age: retired parents can sue children who fail to support them. In government circles “welfare” remains a dirty word, cousin to sloth and waste. Singapore may be a nanny state, but it is by no means an indulgent nanny."
The author has obviously done his/her research well, with insights accessible only from the ground level:

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Great retorts to Kee Chui’s rubbish

It’s a real shame that a country with our level of prosperity and fiscal resources still faces chronic poverty of the kind outlined in Radha Basus article in ST today (p 13 and 13)

Comcare fund is only largely directed at some 45 to 50, 000 families facing temporary problems like illness and retrenchment or the elderly poor; it largely does not include the working poor of 60 to 80, 000 households who are meant to be covered by an inadequate WIS.

Finally, I’m shocked to find out that The Government’s national database for the social services sector, or Social Service Net (SSNet), will be ready by mid-2015. Tot we had one: shows the priority that such a database had under previous ministers (like that rich kid from ACS). (http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/national-database-for/858204.html)

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A Rafflesia by any name stinks as a corpse

Poverty exists in Canada. Click here for information from Canada Without Poverty. The cut-off is not known officially as the "Poverty Line" but "Low-Income Cut-Off (LICO)". Click here for the official definition of LICO from Statistics Canada. Or click here for the actual statistics -- ACCOUNTABLE, OPEN and TRANSPARENT for all to see.

Unlike a little red dot with officials who deny the existence of poverty, Canada makes no pretense that poverty exists in this first world nation. Quote Chan Chun Sing (see online news article below), "other developed ones such as New Zealand and Canada also do not subscribe to official poverty lines.". Canada does not have a SINGLE official poverty line. This is because the reality is that the cost of living varies greatly from province-to-province, from community-to-community. Instead Canada defines a range of LICOs that "vary by family size and by size of community".

So what is the Singapore minister trying to say? Your guess is as good as mine. But as the adage goes, "The first step to solving a problem is to recognize that a problem exists." Thereafter, it is often useful to have a method to gauge/measure the success/effectiveness of a solution/policy -- regardless if the measure is called "Poverty Line" or "Low-Income Cut-Off".

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Not Going To Happen

Last month, Hong Kong adopted an official poverty line. Seeing the similarities between Singapore and Hong Kong, many Singaporeans activists have been asking the Singapore government to do the same in Singapore. Thus far, the Singapore government has refused to do so.

Do not hold your breath thinking that’s going to change.

Mr. Chan Chun Sing, the Minister for Social and Family Development, has all but confirmed that Singapore is not considering having an official poverty line, and I'm not surprised. For all the talk about "cliff effect" and "no such thing as poverty in Singapore", this is the real reason why. Once they adopt an official poverty line in Singapore, the Singapore government will need to raise salaries of workers in Singapore as we need to have a minimum wage.

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Incomes at bottom continue to rise, says Chan Chun Sing

Acting Mnister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing gave figures to show that incomes at the bottom continue to rise, in response to Nominated MP Tan Su Shan’s question on social mobility.

The real median gross monthly income for employed residents increased 1.3 per cent a year from 2002 to 2012, after rising 2.7 per cent a year from 1996 to 2002, Mr Chan said in Parliament.

For the lowest 20th percentile of employed residents, their real gross monthly income rose 0.1 per cent each year from 2002 to 2012, and 2.2 per cent a year from 1996 to 2002.

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A lot has been said about helping the poor in Singapore, and while it’s heartening to see the leadership coming out to encourage people to help the less fortunate, I’m actually skeptical that such appeals to the general public would hold any clout and actually make life better for the poor.

For one, Singaporeans are not known for their spirit of volunteerism. I’m not saying we’re a nation of heartless and inhumane citizens, but let’s do a reality check: how many people actually come forward to volunteer their time and effort on a sustained basis for the benefit of the destitute in Singapore? Most people would probably think it’s a lot easier to simply donate money, and then get on with their lives.

That is if they bother with donations in the first place. I always believed that in addressing poverty issues, one has to take a very realistic approach, instead of the conventional way that seeks to tug at heartstrings– at the end of the day, what the destitute and underprivileged need are not your emphaties (or is it really sympathies?), but rather real solutions that provide for a roof over their heads and putting food on the table.

How do Singapore's poor families get by?

Nurhaida, 29, who is unemployed with six children in Singapore, says it is difficult to make ends meet

Nurhaida Binte Jantan is making dinner. She is roasting otah-otah, a Malay dish of fish paste wrapped in banana leaves, over a portable stove.

She is a 29-year-old unemployed single mother with six children from five to 13 years old. She lives in a tiny flat, just 30 square metres, with little furnishing.

There is no dining table, so the children eat their otah-otah with rice and chillies crouched on the floor.


Poverty in Singapore

There are various categories of being poor in Singapore. (No official line yet, but some are calling for an official poverty line to be defined [t1])

Some could be the old and frail – these are the elderly living on their own, either with no children or children who have abandoned them. They have no means to work and more so if they are sick, they may not be mobile and hence are dependent on others.

We could also have parents not earning enough to make ends meet – partly because they have quite a number of children, in addition to elderly parents so they are the sandwiched generation.

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Callings for a Poverty Line
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A minimum wage for Singapore?

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