Hong Kong: Wealth gap hits a 30-year high


The gap between rich and poor in Hong Kong, as measured on an internationally recognised scale, now stands at its widest in at least three decades, government figures show.

The city’s Gini coefficient – a scale from 0 to 1 on which higher scores indicate greater income inequality – has reached 0.537 based on income data from 2011. It was 0.533 five years ago and 0.451 in 1981.

It is among the highest in the developed world – compared to 0.482 in Singapore and 0.469 in the United States – with poverty advocates saying it shows that neither the economic growth of the past few years nor government relief measures have succeeded in improving the plight of the poor.

Officials meanwhile say that income disparity is likely to worsen in coming years as the ageing population removes more people from the workforce.

The number of “economically inactive households”, defined as families where nobody is working, increased by 48 per cent from 280,000 to 420,000, the Census and Statistics Department said.

Census department statistics released yesterday also showed that the median monthly income for the city’s poorest 10 per cent, including those who received social security assistance, dropped from HK$2,250 to HK$2,070 in the past five years while the top 10 per cent of earners made HK$95,000, compared to HK$76,250 five years ago.

Oxfam’s advocacy officer Wong Shek-hung said a Gini index higher than 0.4 indicated serious inequality. Associate Professor Law Chi-kwong, of the University of Hong Kong’s social work department, said the figures might well be underestimated as the measurements included welfare income received by households eligible for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance.

The warnings came a day after chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying vowed to revive an anti-poverty commission to set out policies to relieve hardship among low-income earners.

Leung said on Sunday that a preparation committee for the commission would be formed soon so the body could be functioning when he took office in July 1.

Commissioner for Census and Statistics Lily Ou-yang said yesterday that the enactment of minimum wage laws as well as economic growth in the past few years had boosted incomes for low earners and the better-off, meaning the wealth gap had not changed dramatically.

The chief executive of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, Christine Fang Meng-sang, said the government should no longer assume economic growth could improve the living standards of the poor.

Various advocacy groups have estimated that more than 1 million Hongkongers live in poverty, although the government does not have an official definition.

Chan Yik-ping, 43, said her family of four saw little hope of escaping poverty in the near future. A quarter of her waiter husband’s HK$8,000 salary goes on rent for their cubicle in a subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po, while milk formula and diapers for a new baby cost HK$2,000.

“I just took the baby to see a doctor today. It cost HK$100, and it’s already the cheapest in town,” Chan said. “It’s nearly impossible for four people to live off just HK$8,000.”

The family applied for public housing four years ago but have heard nothing yet.

“My biggest wish is to be assigned a flat in a public estate soon. The children are growing up and it’s getting more crowded here,” she said, looking at her 12-year-old son.

“My older son has always wanted his own room, and I feel sorry that I haven’t been able to give him that.”

Dennis Chong and Ada Lee
Jun 19, 2012

South China Morning Post