Hong Kong’s coronavirus-induced economic slump is hitting both working-class and middle-class families, with more than 100,000 households driven into poverty, a new analysis shows.

The Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS) said more than 359,900 – or 17.1 per cent – of economically active households were suffering from unemployment or underemployment in the third quarter of last year.

HKCSS Chief Officer Wong Wo-ping (left) and Business Director Anthony Wong Kin-wai (right). Photo: HKCSS.

At least one member in each of these households was unemployed or underemployed, defined as being unable to find work for more than 35 hours a week.

Using Census Department data from between 2015 and the third quarter of 2020, the HKCSS analysis published on Sunday revealed that about a third of the 359,900 households are living below the poverty line, defined as half of the typical household income amongst households of the same size.

An estimated 1.1 million people live in households affected by unemployment or underemployment.

Hong Kong’s official unemployment rate recently hit 6.6 per cent, with over 245,000 people listed as out of work and another 134,000 underemployed.

Social security

The figures show that in the third quarter of last year a total of 380,000 people were fully unemployed or underemployed but only 5.3 per cent received social security assistance from the government.

The median duration of unemployment also increased significantly, from 54 days in the third quarter of 2019 to 108 days a year later.

Although unemployment and underemployment rates were high among the working class – at 10.3 and 6 per cent respectively for those in public housing, compared to 5.8 per cent and 3.4 per cent in private housing – the slump also hit the middle classes and the better educated.

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File Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP

“It is found that middle-class citizens are widely affected by unemployment and underemployment. However, they may not be protected under the existing [means-tested] social security system, which made it difficult for them to maintain their original income and livelihood,” an HKCSS spokesperson said in a statement.

The council urged the government to review its assistance system, set up short-term unemployment help for families hit by the pandemic, and relax eligibility criteria for households to qualify for Working Family Allowance.

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.