To better help our poor, we need to talk to, not at, one another

By July 2, 2018Current

TL;DR – In addition to many helping hands, let’s also have many thinking heads.

Recently there has been a series of articles and letters about the challenges that the poor in Singapore face and the help they receive. It seems that this vigorous public discussion was triggered, in part, by Associate Professor Teo You Yen’s book “This Is What Inequality Looks Like”.

I haven’t read Prof Teo’s book.

But from what I know about the book, it challenges the notion that we are doing enough to help the poor. It draws upon her research which talks primarily  about how we need to rethink the principles underlying our policies if we want to see more equal outcomes. Her book also calls the current social system “deeply problematic”.

Response from government

Not surprisingly, Prof Teo’s book has drawn a response from the government. Dr Maliki Osman, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, wrote an article that was published in the Straits Times titled “This Is What Helping Families Look Like”.

Dr Maliki recounted that he learnt as an undergraduate in social work that welfare to the poor is a temporary safety net to help individuals “get back on their feet”.

He then went on to highlight the various assistance schemes that the poor has access to. With those assistance schemes, Dr Maliki suggested that we have far fewer poor families in Singapore today than in the past. He said:

“We have far fewer poor families in Singapore today than in the past, and they are receiving help in an ecosystem that works reasonably well by any standard. We need to continue improving the system and make sure all families in real need receive adequate help. Equally important, we need to understand these families’ actual circumstances over time. This understanding starts with objective facts and accurate descriptions. The underlying philosophy of Singapore’s approach is helping these families get on their feet, which involves providing resources and developing their sense of responsibility and resolve. This is what helping families means.”

How successful are we?

There is nothing wrong and everything right in wanting to help families get on their feet so that they no longer need financial assistance from the state. It’s a noble goal.

But how successful have we been? How many families who have been on financial assistance have managed to get back on their feet? How many families keep on going back to get short- or middle- term financial assistance over and over again? And for those families who keep on going back to get short- or middle- term financial assistance, what’s stopping them from being self-reliant? More importantly, do their children end up starting families who also keep going back for financial assistance?

I can’t find any statistics that even begin to answer those questions. In the absence of such data, those “objective facts”, how can we form those “accurate descriptions” to understand where our system needs to be improved?

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And, as Dr Maliki also acknowledged, we must continue to improve our system, even if our ecosystem “works reasonably well by any standard”.

Understanding a difficult, multi-faceted issue

Many social workers and activists have joined in the discussion. Dr Sudha Nair, an experienced social worker, wrote about helping families with low income make better decisions.

To do that, social workers often have to ask questions that might be perceived as demeaning. For instance, social workers might have to question why a family with low income subscribes to cable TV or why they spend so much on cigarettes. Dr Sudha was, in essence, preaching tough love, and advocating that low income families should take responsibility for their needs and choices too. He’d said,

“We have seen many families make poor choices. They need help to assess their needs and wants.”

“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?

Some say it would be “judgmental” of us to advise him to stop smoking; that we would undermine his dignity.”

There’s nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy and straightforward to differentiate a “need” from a “want”.

This was brilliantly illustrated by an article in CNA by Cindy Ng, a social worker with extensive experience working with low-income families and persons experiencing violence and abuse.

In that article, Ms Ng detailed three cases.

The first was of a Mr Tan, a man in his sixties who was going to be evicted from his current place of stay. He was unable to get along with his sister, who co-owns the flat with her husband. Mr Tan had strained relationships with his other siblings and no means of income. He was eligible for HDB public rental housing. But as he could not list a family member as co-occupier, he had to find another single person to be co-tenant in a one-room flat under the Joint Singles Scheme.

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While we do have a system to meet Mr Tan’s immediate needs of having a physical shelter, Ms Ng pointed out that housing is not just about shelter and physical safety. It is also about privacy and a sense of security. It is a place for leisure and social participation, for pursuing our interests and spending time with friends and family. So, if Mr Tan were to conform to what is available in order to meet immediate physical needs he may have to trade off long-term social and emotional needs.

The second case was of a Madam Rani, a single mother. Her youngest child, aged 6, has special needs and requires full-time care. Her older children who are still in school, aged 15 to 18, recently found regular weekend jobs to provide for their own out-of-school expenses. They work so the additional income can allow them to participate in activities with their friends and afford the things their friends have. But when her children’s earnings were discovered during an income assessment, she was accused of misreporting her family income and her assistance was reduced.

The problem is, social participation is not considered a basic need and its value is invisible to the accounting of financial assistance. But when Madam Rani’s children cut back on social activities, the sort of activities they see their peers get involved in, it limits their access to the social experiences and relationships that are important at their age. It affects their chances and ability to fit into their peer groups, which in turns affects their social-emotional development.

The third case was of a Mr Ali, who had done well at work and was offered a promotion. If he accepts the promotion, the salary increase would mean that the rental for his HDB flat may be raised under the rules of the public rental scheme. He nearly turned down the promotion, but was persuaded by a social worker to change his mind. This case demonstrated how our social policies might end up discouraging someone who’s poor from raising his income.

Ms Ng emphasized that these are not isolated cases. These stories are just as valid as stories of families who successfully bounced back with the help of our social trampoline. These cases show the dilemmas and struggles of the poor. These cases highlight that the needs of the poor go beyond food, shelter, and clothing. They include things like access to the internet, socialising and recreation, which allow people to participate in society.

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From these cases, we also see some of the structural barriers that the poor face in trying to move out of poverty.  

In order to fully understand how to help the poor overcome their challenges and dilemmas and meet all those needs, we need to “lean in to understand” so that we can “reflect critically on our policies, identify gaps, and propose changes.”

Start talking to one another

While the perspectives and narratives given by all these various groups might differ, they are all correct. The poor isn’t just a single homogenous group. They are a diverse bunch, with different problems, facing different challenges, in different circumstances.

So instead of pointing out what’s wrong with one another’s perspectives, the government, academics, social workers, social activists should come together, talk to one another, share data, discuss, collaborate, research, propose and implement better policies.

But this won’t be possible if the government isn’t humble and open-minded to listen to views and ideas that challenge their established position on this matter. And currently, judging from the various media commentaries and all, it doesn’t seem that the government is open to listen. Instead, it has come across as defensive. That is truly unfortunate.

If only the government is committed to create an environment that can bring many thinking heads together to improve our social policies and reduce the structural barriers, then we can better help the poor in Singapore. And that can only happen if the government starts talking to, not at, the people who actually want the same thing as it does – to help the poor meet their diverse needs in a sustainable way.


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Author CRC

Working on a startup is a scary crazy process. To destress, I write random stuff.

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