COMMENT: Opening salvos in the poverty debate

(PHOTO: Getty Images)

So we’re having a little debate about inequality in Singapore and whether “the system’’ disadvantages the poor. It’s all because of this bestselling book,“This Is What Inequality Looks Like”, by Associate Professor Teo You Yenn, in which she analyses her interactions with the poorest households in rental flats in Singapore over three years.

Today, ST published a response from Dr Maliki Osman, with an apt headline: This is what helping families look like.

Truth to tell, I thought it was pretty long in coming. It can’t be comfortable for the G to read about how its policies tying aid with a list of conditions that must be met might actually be making the poor poorer. Dr Maliki, Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he disagreed with the professor’s thesis that the odds are stacked against them.

“The fact is that many, nearly 50 per cent of rental flat tenants, did have their own bigger (subsidised) flats, but had sold them and used up the cash proceeds. This means that while they may be down today, they were up yesterday and can certainly be up again tomorrow. If we attribute the cause of their being poor to the system, we should note that the same system that “disadvantaged” them today “advantaged” them yesterday. In fact, the system has not disadvantaged them.’’

His commentary comes three days after Dr Sudha Nair, executive director of Pave, a centre that works on issues of family violence, child protection and disadvantaged families, had her own column published in ST. Both Dr Maliki and Dr Nair were involved in the Bedok Interim Rental Housing which helps families find permanent homes.

I found Dr Teo’s book enlightening because it tells the story of the poor in Singapore from a different perspective, from the ground up instead of via hard statistics only. It exudes empathy and opened my eyes to many things that I take for granted or had wrongly assumed. Like why corridors in rental flats are cluttered because there is simply no space for a family’s belongings in a rental flat. Like how mothers might have little choice but to stop work because there is simply no one they can turn to to mind the children. Like how they would spend on a large flat-screen television set because that is their only and sole form of entertainment.

There are plenty of references about maintaining the dignity of such families, instead of making them jump through hoops to get help. You have to be pretty desperate, and even go through some humiliating question and answer sessions before you get a helping hand.

Dr Nair’s commentary tackled Dr Teo’s point about dignity. In a nutshell, she said that social workers must ask tough questions that seem intrusive to be able to assess the needs of their clients.

“Yes, we ask questions. And yes, we ask how families strapped for cash spend the little money they have. What do you do when you find the man of the house is a regular smoker, and feels he is entitled to that lifestyle choice? And what if his family is also paying for a full slew of cable television channels? Should social workers not question such a family spending $500 a month on cigarettes and cable TV while at the same time applying for financial aid?’’

In another part of her commentary, she said:“If we say the poor should be spared hard questions or being challenged, and be given help without conditions, we would in effect be conceding that such families are hopeless and helpless. A cardinal principle in social work is that everyone has the potential to do well and social workers harness that potential.’’

I agree that help shouldn’t be unconditional and that some means testing must be done to weed out those who want to game the system. The question to ask is whether the “conditions’’ are too tough to meet and whether the means test is overly stringent. There’s no point talking in hyperbolic terms of black and white.

I thought Dr Nair was extremely courageous to preach tough love. She talked about abusive, angry people who ask for aid and then want to be left alone. She has no illusions. Some poor people simply don’t want to work hard, want hand-outs and are clueless about the situation they are in.

Then I came to the last line about how her programme changed many lives “because families had the humility to acknowledge problems and the courage to change’’. I was uncomfortable with the word “humility’’, possibly because it’s a trait that I think rich people should have, rather than those already humbled by circumstances. I guess it’s semantics but it is not a word I would choose.

Then I see a letter in the ST Forum Page today signed by 40 social workers responding to Dr Nair’s column. The letter was a more sympathetic take on the plight of the poor, and made the added point that not everything can be laid at the family’s door.

“While it is easy to attribute the situation of low-income households to poor decision-making and celebrate tough love, we must also acknowledge the role that systems and structures play in creating the conditions of poverty in the first instance.

“In addition to asking clients hard questions, structural barriers in areas such as housing, education, sustainable employment, health and mental health services, family support, and care services must be addressed.

“Social workers in all fields of practice have a responsibility to draw attention to these barriers. Only then will people have the freedom and bandwidth to make and realise good decisions.’’

Then there was a direct reference to Dr Nair’s examples of flagrant spending.

“The issue of spending choices highlights further concerns. Who gets to decide what are bad decisions? In low-income households with limited options, the television is an important source of leisure and information. Material goods can offer a semblance of normalcy for marginalised families.’’

Clearly they hold a different view from Dr Nair, enough to galvanise 40 people to put their signatures to the letter.

But of course, it is Dr Maliki’s views that should interest us most. He is, after all, an office-holder and has a doctorate in social work.

Despite the extensive help extended, some commentators claim that the poor in Singapore, especially those living in rental flats, have severe unmet needs, and are being neglected,” he said.

“They say the poor are struggling because help often comes with onerous conditions; that parents do not go to work because they cannot find suitable childcare arrangements, and that they do not qualify for childcare subsidies because they are not working.

“But the facts disprove these claims. There are extensive healthcare and childcare subsidies available to mothers in low-income households, including those who are not working.”

I expected the above statement to be followed by some figures on families who take advantage of such help, but I had to be content with what sort of programmes there are.

Dr Maliki added:“The relevant point here is this: In making conclusions about the poor in Singapore, we need to be careful about using some particular cases or groups to generalise about the poor, the system, and the outcomes.

“We need to look at the facts and understand the situations. We should also draw lessons from the many inspiring households who got back on their feet because they took ownership of their problems, worked hard, and made good use of the help they received.’’

I am not sure if three years of research by Dr Teo qualifies as generalisations about the poor, the system and the outcomes. And of course, there are examples of inspiring families, but they aren’t the focus of her thesis, right?

I find the problem with dealing with problems is that we want to see all sides of the picture instead of the problem per se. We want to overwhelm the warts with feel-good examples. We think that this is “fair’’. Nobody, however, would think it unfair if a book only concentrates on rags-to-riches stories, and neglects to talk about those who are still in rags.

Dr Maliki’s “defence’’ of the system is that most of these families had their ups and downs and are now in the “down’’ time because they’ve sold off their flats and somehow spent all the proceeds and went broke. It reminded me of the “trampoline’’ analogy used by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. When families are down, will the net be strong enough to push them up? Evidently, Dr Maliki thinks yes.

This might be the case for plenty of underprivileged families – or 50 per cent of those in rental homes, as cited by Dr Maliki. But what about the other 50 per cent who are chronically poor? How many such families have not moved upward and onwards through the generations? Is our system so perfect that no more improvement can be made? Is there absolutely no flaw? That’s an arrogant position to take.

Let’s not be overly defensive about our policies. There’s no need to magnify the state of poverty but we can take a magnifying glass to examine the warts. To paraphrase Dr Nair, even policymakers “must have the humility to acknowledge problems and the courage to change’’.

I think such a debate on social policy is healthy. May more people take part, without fear or favour.