SCMP Thursday, June 22, 2000

Life gets better, except for the poor

LINDA YEUNG


Things have improved a lot in Hong Kong, if the unprecedented social development index (SDI) released yesterday by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service is to be believed.

According to the study's findings, social development - comprising areas from how much people indulge in the arts to how well they read and write - has improved by about 75 per cent since 1981, with the biggest improvement over those years in science and technology. The average educational level has risen, while crime has become a lesser problem. The infant mortality rate is falling, while cultural activities such as visiting museums have become popular.

But there are surprise findings too. For instance, environmental quality and the status of the elderly have allegedly improved since 1991, taken as the median base point of the study. The indicators the researchers used to study the elderly included participation rate in organising social programmes, the suicide rate, the turnout rate in the most recent District Board election, years of life expectancy for people at age 65, percentage of elderly people with lower secondary education, the number living alone, and those in lower income households. Improvement was recorded in all indicators except suicide rate and income level.

And for environmental quality, factors covered the number of beaches ranked as poor or very poor, per capita area of public open space, per capita domestic units of fresh water consumption and percentage of municipal solid waste recycled.

At the same time, this milestone research - costing more than $1 million - used a wide range of data to show comprehensively that the poor are becoming more vulnerable. Despite the positive findings about social progress in Hong Kong, the worsening state of the impoverished is likely to attract most public attention.

Professor Richard Estes of the University of Pennsylvania, who was asked by the council to do the research in May last year, said concern should be raised about the sign of a growing underclass of impoverished people who lacked the means for career advancement or to reap the benefits of an advanced economy.

"The growing number of low-income households, amount of child abuse, unemployment among the youth and poor living standards of the elderly, are among the most prominent problems we find behind Hong Kong's prosperity."

With a board of consultants chaired by the head of Lingnan University, Professor Edward Chen Kwan-yiu, Professor Estes identified 47 social, political and economic indicators in 14 sectors between 1981 and 1998, to arrive at the final index. This shows that overall, Hong Kong is 33 per cent better off than in 1991. Statistics for the areas were gleaned from the Government, academic and non-government institutions.

It is open to debate whether the indicators chosen are actually indicative of social changes. Some audience members at a luncheon at the Furama hotel yesterday where the findings were announced, cast doubt on the choice of some indicators. They said the number of marriages above the age of 15, which was used to gauge family cohesion in Hong Kong, ignored the rising number of those who married on the mainland.

But the exercise is not short of support from people outside the council. Many representatives from business and non-governmental organisations, government officials and academics turned up to hear the findings. Pro vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, Wong Siu-lun, said it was a thought-provoking and rewarding effort. Commissioner of the Census and Statistics Department, Frederick Ho Wing-huen, was also impressed by the wide and efficient use of data.

Professor Chen said the study aimed to assess Hong Kong's unique social situation at various points since 1981. He said an evaluation of social development was pertinent, given Hong Kong's advanced economic state. The great disparity in income between rich and poor and the worsening state of the low-income group is of concern to many in the welfare sector. Professor Estes said that this had cut the overall rate of development despite the positive figures in many areas.

By commissioning the study, the council is keen to raise public awareness for the problem of increased poverty, especially in a hi-tech, service-industry economy.

Council director Hui Yin-fat emphasised: "There should be a stronger and more effective partnerships between the Government, non-governmental and business sectors, as well as the public, in enhancing social development in Hong Kong."

He said when or how often the index exercise would be repeated depended on how seriously the findings were taken by the public.

But perhaps the council will not need to do it a second time. Professor Wong of the University of Hong Kong stressed that social study institutions should be set up to monitor the SAR's social data bank and conduct in-depth analysis of various potential problems, not just those affecting the poor.