Poverty in Hong Kong is found mostly among the aged and new immigrants. For the elderly, the cause is the lack of provision for pensions in the local welfare system. Although the government recently introduced MPF (Mandatory Provident Fund), it is too little and too late to help those who already have advanced into their senior years.
The elderly are generally better off than new immigrants who live in poverty. Despite the stipulation in the Basic Law that Hong Kong residents have the right to social welfare in accordance with law, the same law also requires residency in Hong Kong for seven years to qualify. The elderly have access to social welfare provisions, albeit inadequate. The new immigrants and their children are not eligible if they have not lived continuously in Hong Kong for seven years even if they have fulfilled all other requirements to become a permanent resident. In other words, in the seven years before they become permanent residents, they are second class citizens, deprived of the social citizenship bestowed by the Basic Law.
It is this group of immigrants in the low income group that has no support from the society to reduce their distress and all other negative consequences arising from poverty. The Basic Law stipulates that anyone living in Hong Kong continuously for seven years and taking Hong Kong as his permanent home would be eligible to become permanent citizens. Their political status and eligibility for social citizenship are the same as the new immigrants who have already been accepted by the society to become permanent residents from the time they arrive in Hong Kong. Still they must undergo a seven-year "internship". There may be a need for a process of naturalization for the new immigrants, but why has it to take seven years? For non-immigrants who become permanent residents, the seven-year "internship" is reasonable, but for immigrants who have already gone through a process of acceptance for naturalization, the period of waiting should be reduced.
It is true that due to historical factors, many of the new immigrants belong to low income groups and may not immediately be employable in Hong Kong. Allowing them access to social citizenship would mean higher welfare expenditures. However, poverty entails all kinds of social, family and individual problems that could eventually cost the society much more. More importantly, social welfare is not charity. As enshrined by the Basic Law it is a right under social citizenship. By denying them of the rights means treating them as second class citizens, which is contrary to goals of social inclusion and solidarity that social citizenship aims to foster.
A more recent conception of social welfare or social citizenship is social investment in human capital. As these new immigrants will be eligible to become permanent residents after seven years, it would be beneficial for the society to invest in them, including the children, before rather than after seven years of poverty. In Hong Kong we have found pockets of new immigrants living in poverty concentrated in some districts with signs of deteriorating into slumps with all the associated social and economic problems.
Any social account will show that the social costs of letting these new immigrants and their families live in poverty for seven long years will be much higher than the actual welfare spending for seven years. Worst still, the effect on children growing up in those families and the impact on family relationships including marriage will trap new immigrants in poverty, even after granting them social welfare benefits. They would form separate groups of people in society that will suffer from almost permanent social exclusion and are likely to become a major source of crime and disorder in the future if not in the present.
So even though the Basic Law may not be changed to remove the seven-year residential requirements, the SAR government would and should set up welfare schemes to target the new immigrants living at the poverty line. The government has both the resources and obligation to extend social citizenship to them after granting them immigrant status.
The author is head of China Business Centre, Hong Kong Polytechnic University.