[Cover Story]Rich city, poor children
Reporters: Natalie Leung, Karen Leung and Tsau Jin Cheng
With one of the world's most advanced education and welfare systems, Hong Kong still struggles to alleviate child poverty.
Fifteen-year-old Leo Li was once told he would be left out of a field trip to the Museum of Art in Tsim Sha Tsui for a school project because his parents couldn't afford to pay for his commute and admission fees.
Living with his parents and four-year-old sister Amy in a 200 square-foot subdivided flat in Prince Edward, Leo does not get to attend after-school tutorials as it is too expensive for his mother to enroll him in one.
As a result, he is falling behind in school with lower grades than his peers who go to tutorial schools and participate in extra-curricular activities.
Hong Kong has always had a largely hidden underclass. But in the 14 years since the island was handed back to China, the number of people in poverty has increased by a staggering 50 per cent to 1.3 million.
Children are particularly vulnerable, as one in five currently falls below the poverty line, according to a report released by the Census and Statistics Department last year.
More than 35,000 children in Hong Kong – 20 per cent of all children – live in families with incomes below half of the median household income, which stands at HK$14,300 a month for a family of four.
As a highly-developed city with one of the world's most advanced education and welfare systems, the former British colony still grapples with the issue of poverty.
On September 28 last year, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced that about 1.3 million people – roughly 19.6 per cent of the city's population – are officially poor. The number would recede to 15.2 per cent if welfare payments are included, but even then it remains stubbornly high.
According to Ms Lam Man-wa, a community organiser for the Concerning CSSA and Low Income Alliance, material hardship is one key component of poverty facing low-income families in Hong Kong.
"They [children] practically spend their childhood on their [bunk] beds; they work and play there," said Ms Lam.
Some landlords would even carve out the stairwell and hallways in buildings for living space to rent to needy families. These cubicles are often clogged up with garbage that block emergency fire exits.
The typical subdivided home would be a single privately owned flat carved into five 80 to 100 square-foot units that are then rented out to a family of three or four. For the children, these homes can only give room to a bunk bed and occasionally a makeshift desk.
"To achieve a minimum but decent standard of living, families need more than material resources; they also need ‘human and social capital,'" added Ms Lam.
Human and social capital refers to education, basic life skills, and employment experience, as well as less tangible resources such as social networks and access to civic institutions.
Education, in particular, remains a hurdle for underprivileged children.
"Schools and teachers expect kids to be a jack of all trades. But in reality, it is hard for children from low-income families to even complete their regular studies, "said Ms Lam.
"The government is patching up holes in the wall; we want to see radical change because end-of-pipe treatments just won't cut it in the long run," she added.
Have we forgotten the children?
Last year, lawmakers unanimously passed Labour Party Vice Chairman Mr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung's motion proposing the establishment of an independent children's commission for a second time since 2007.
But the government has yet to take any action.
Children's commissions are already functioning effectively in about 200 countries, such as Australia, Britain, Canada and Germany, according to Mrs Priscilla Lui Tsang Sun-kai, vice-chairperson of the Hong Kong Committee on Children's Rights.
Hong Kong has already established the Commission on Youth, the Equal Opportunities Commission; the Women's Commission and the Elderly Commission.
But Mrs Lui said these commissions targeted all family members.
"Why does the government see no pressing need to set up a child commission since they think children are also part of a family unit?"
The Family Council is one of the advisory bodies that the government consults when formulating and implementing measures and policies related to children.
However, as Mrs Lui points out, most non-governmental organisations think that the Family Council focuses solely on the impact of poverty on families and not on children.
Mr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said that policymakers – now and then – only paid attention to anything that help with economic development.
"Children have no status here except that they will become members of our future workforce and continue contributing to the economy. Other than that, their existence has no special meaning."
Dr Chou Kee-lee, head of the Department of Asian and Policy Studies at Hong Kong Institute of Education who once conducted a study on child poverty, said there was no need to set up a separate commission to protect children's rights.
He believes the commission would only be another consultative body with little influence on policy-making towards children's rights.
The Children's Rights Forum, which was set up in 2005 by the Home Affairs Bureau, aims to provide a platform for the exchange of views among non-governmental organisations, children's representatives and the government on matters concerning children's rights.
But Mr Cheung sees no transparency in the forum as participants are not publicly invited and its agenda is often set by officials.
"A child commission is definitely needed," said Mrs Lui.
"But without the government's support, nothing can be achieved," said Mr Cheung.
Breaking out of the poverty cycle
Most children will tell you what they want to be when they grow up with great fervour and optimism.
For the children from the 16 low-income families followed by the Concerning CSSA and Low Income Alliance however, future prospects are not so promising.
Despite this, they do not seem to be pessimistic, said Ms Lam Man-wa, community organiser of the Concerning CSSA and Low Income Alliance who observes these children from a young age until they mature into adolescents.
"They are getting used to giving up and accepting the reality. I am not sure whether this is a good thing or not," said Ms Lam.
Nearly all the parents from the underprivileged families Ms Lam has had contact with told her their children independently select "not participate" for extracurricular activities designed by their schools. They do this simply to reduce family burdens, she said.
Comparisons between the rich and poor cause psychological distress to the underprivileged but are unavoidable, especially when they are enrolled in the same schools.
To address the psychological impact of poverty on children, both resources and proper parenting are equally important, said Hong Kong Institute of Education Professor Chou Kee-lee, who conducted a study on child poverty in 2012.
The main concern Professor Chou has is on the brain development of children living in poverty. This impacts their performance in schools and ultimately their future.
Prof Chou said many studies indicate that children who grow up living in poverty tend to have poorer brain development, including selective attention and executive functioning – both of which are essential for learning.
Another important aspect is applying correct nurturing to children to alleviate the negative impact of poverty.
Professor Chou suggested that the government introduce "elderly intervention", a program in which professionals such as social workers or nurses pay regular visits to expecting mothers from low-income families in order to enhance their parenting skills before and after their baby is born.
According to Mrs Priscilla Lui Tsang Sun-kai, the vice chairperson of the Hong Kong Committee on Children's Rights, similar programmes have been introduced by non-governmental organisations.
In these programmes, trained volunteers visit low-income families with newborn babies and educate parents on how to rear their children.
By strengthening communication between parents, programmes like these can provide the children with a head start towards breaking the poverty cycle, said Mrs Lui.
Edited by Natasha Chan and Brian Yap
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