October 17th, 2012

Including the poor in an inclusive society

A more comprehensive approach is needed to improve social mobility across generations and to de-feminise poverty.

By Vivienne Wee &Nadzirah Samsudin

The International day for the Eradication of Poverty is observed every year on October 17. It serves as reminder of the need to eradicate poverty in all countries. This year, the theme is “working together out of poverty”, representing a call for a global anti-poverty alliance.

In Singapore, beggars are kept off the streets, yet poverty still exists, though not always in public view. At least 20 per cent of households, earning less than the median income of $3,070, struggle to make ends meet.

Since 2001, the bottom 10 per cent of the population have experienced only a 9 per cent increase in their income. In the same period, the top 10 per cent of the population have enjoyed an increase of 32 per cent in income.

During an interview at the 2012 World Economic Forum, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that although it is “no fun” being poor in Singapore, people are still “less badly off” than the poor in other countries, as the government ensures that “everybody starts with some chips”, not at zero, through education, health care and public housing.

But are these ‘chips’ enough? The Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) reports an increase in public assistance cases from 2,929 in 2010 to 3,034 in 2011. The number of female-headed households on this scheme has also increased from 895 in 2004 to 1,002 in 2009. This is likely to increase further with the growing number of single women.

The Gini coefficient in Singapore has risen to 0.452 in 2010 (1 indicates maximum inequality between rich and poor). Singapore’s Many Helping Hands approach identifies the family as the most important welfare provider, with government support coming in only to fill discernible cracks.

This means that poorer families, including those with members employed in low-wage work, are likely to be trapped in a vicious cycle. When low-wage workers have to support retired family members without adequate savings, they are unable to accumulate savings for themselves or to invest in their children’s futures.

Poverty in Singapore thus tends to be transferred across generations, with younger family members unable to escape the poverty endured by parents and grandparents. A Straits Times article (‘A fair starting line’, July 16, 2011) cites research that shows that 58 per cent of the economic advantage gained by higher-income families are inherited by the children.

This gives Singapore an intergenerational income elasticity of 0.58, indicating less social mobility than Hong Kong with an index of 0.4 and the Scandinavian countries with indices lower than 0.3.

A key factor is inadequate social spending. This has not kept pace with widening income inequality. Social spending has even decreased from 25 per cent of GDP in the 1980s to about 16 per cent in 2011. Compared to Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, Province of China, Singapore spends the smallest amount on social programmes, with uneven consequences for rich and poor.

Medical bills are a growing problem for the poor. In 2000, the World Health Organisation ranked Singapore a dismal 101st – 102nd for fairness of healthcare financing. The Government-mandated healthcare financing system (Medisave, MediShield and Medifund) is not a major source of payment for healthcare. Patients in Singapore pay about 55 per cent out of pocket, compared to 30 per cent in other advanced Asian economies.

Even though women have a higher life expectancy, high medical costs may prevent poorer elderly women from receiving needed medical attention. The feminization of poverty – a situation where most of the poor are women – is an increasing phenomenon. MCYS data from 2005 show that for women aged 55 and above, less than half had their own income, as compared to three-quarters of men in the same age group.

Prevailing gender norms relegate care-giving as the responsibility of women. This pressures women to make the rational choice of leaving the workforce to care for dependents. They thus have lower incomes, less CPF and less Medisave, as well as reduced access to employment health benefits or private insurance, compared to what men have.

Feminised poverty is transferred across generations. Girls in poor families tend to be more disadvantaged than boys are. They too grow up to become the main care-givers of the generation above and the generation below. As they themselves grow older, they also tend to have lower incomes, hence also more dependent on their adult children.

Although various government schemes has been made more accessible by the revamped ComCare portal and better information dissemination, a more comprehensive approach is needed to address the two key issues: Increasing social mobility across generations and de-feminising poverty.

These patterns of poverty are systematically reproduced by structures that favour the haves against the have-nots, as well as foist the burden of social reproduction on women. These biased structures need to be changed if the poor are to be included in a truly inclusive society.

Dr Vivienne Wee is AWARE’s Research & Advocacy Director. Nadzirah Samsudin is AWARE’s Research and Advocacy Executive. This piece was first published on The Online Citizen on Oct 17, 2012. Read the published version here.


  1. Sureesh

    It would be usefull if Aware’s research and advocacy group could provide a white paper or some policy considerations on how to defeminise poverty and increase social mobility for low income households. Or would this be too difficult to carry out. What support or resources would Aware need for such an initiative.

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