SCMP Thursday, June 22, 2000

Rich and poor growing further apart: report


The gulf between rich and poor is widening, with a growing underclass excluded from prosperity, according to the SAR's first social development index.

The number of families living in poverty has increased, the living standards of many elderly people are low, and there is a greater incidence of child abuse and youth unemployment, the study reveals.

"This is in contrast to our growing economic prosperity," said Richard Estes of the University of Pennsylvania's school of social work, who headed the study. He pointed out that gross domestic product grew 132 per cent between 1981 and 1998.

Professor Estes said four distinct and unequal societies had developed:

The "well off", whose social positions and development status were largely immune from swings in the local economy;

The "socially secure" with good jobs who had been able to insulate themselves from all but the more extreme development shifts;

The "socially insecure" who were employed and "getting by" (but perhaps with difficulty); and,

A growing "underclass" of more or less permanently impoverished people who possessed limited means of extricating themselves from poverty.
The research showed the percentage of people in the lower income group (who earn less than half of the mean income in a society) had risen from 10 per cent in 1986 to 16 per cent in 1998.

Professor Estes said there were three features in this: a doubling of the number of unemployed people in the lower income group since 1986, to 20 per cent in 1998; stagnation in real wages between 1991 and 1998; and the fact that lower income people now spent more than 70 per cent of their money on substandard food and housing and necessary transport.

"How can you possibly get out of the situation when the little bit you earn is used just to stand in the same place? You cannot," he said.

Lingnan University chief Professor Edward Chen Kwan-yiu, chairman of the board of consultants for the study, said the findings offered substantial proof of poverty. "The fruit that is shared with the vulnerable is very limited," Professor Chen said.

Hui Yin-fat, director of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, for which the study was conducted, said the gulf between rich and poor was widening. "There is unbalanced development in society. We need to remind the public and the Government that we should be more concerned about development so that society will not become deformed."

A spokesman for the Health and Welfare Bureau said the Government welcomed the introduction of the index.

"However, we still need time to understand the study's contents. We will seriously study the suggestions of the council."

The study was based on statistics from official sources, academic institutions and non-governmental organisations.