Almost a quarter of Hongkongers — the highest number in 12 years — would have lived in poverty last year without government aid, new statistics show.

The number who would have fallen below the official poverty line without assistance was 1.65 million or 23.6 per cent of the population. This was reduced to 7.9 per cent after government subsidies, meaning around 554,000 people actually lived below the poverty line last year.

jordan yau ma tei subdivided flats old building
Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP

Government intervention measures included one-off cash subsidies, recurrent subsidies and means-tested benefits such as public rental housing and financial assistance for kindergartens and child care.

The government gave a HK$10,000 cash handout to all adult permanent residents in 2020. Past reports had not included non-means tested one-off cash subsidies as poverty alleviation measures in calculating the actual poverty rate.

The Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report released on Wednesday said a marked rise in poverty without government aid was “inevitable” during the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing unemployment rates.

“Affected by the global Covid-19 pandemic, the Hong Kong economy experienced a severe recession in 2020. The labour market deteriorated sharply, characterised by noticeably rising unemployment rate and decelerated overall wages growth,” the report said.

Covid-19 coronavirus mask
People wearing face masks in Hong Kong. File photo: GovHK.

The poverty line, calculated at half of the city’s median monthly income, stands at HK$4,400 for one person and HK$20,400 for a four-person household.

The 2020 poverty rate before government intervention rose from 21.4 per cent in 2019, while the actual poverty rate fell from 9.2 per cent.

The report was issued by the Office of the Government Economist and the Census and Statistics Department.

‘More help for the unemployed’

A member of the Commission for Poverty urged the government to do more to help the city’s grassroots and those hit hard by the pandemic.

“From last year, we saw many people losing their employment… the government should set up a short-term unemployment or low-income assistance scheme to help people when they lose their jobs or income… We’ve talking about it for two years and nothing has happened,” Sze Lai-shan told Commercial Radio on Thursday morning.

poverty hong kong
Photo: Citizen News.

Sze told the station that she did not expect more positive poverty figures for this year, saying the pandemic is still hitting business and many people are still on unpaid leave or working shorter hours.

She said the commission should meet more regularly and smaller working groups should be set up to better investigate underlying reasons for the rising poverty rate.

The government should also set a target minimum poverty rate as a policy goal, Sze said.

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Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.