By Koh Yi Hui, NUS
A matter of circumstance or consequence of personal choice - a most common debate on causes of poverty and consequently, the extent of societal responsibility in uplifting the poor. No doubt, money is a flighty thing. One wrong move could change one’s fortunes. Recently enamoured with the hustle culture of ‘making my money work for me’, I joined a growing pool of Singaporeans in investing through Robo Advisors. Alas, I did not stop when I was ahead and ultimately got burnt by the stock market.
Bad investments, high expenditure beyond paychecks - surely, one’s lifestyle choices could lead to financial ruin. Or worse so, the poor are often blamed for being “lazy”. Those who do not comprehend ask: What’s so hard about staying in school, getting a job?
It turns out, there are many reasons why these things we take for granted may be difficult for those of lower income.
Staying in school
It is mandatory for Singaporean children between 6-15 to complete primary education. Beyond that, nothing binds them to schooling - they can choose to secure a job, contributing to their family’s straining finances instead. Even for those who stay in school, lower-income students often find it harder to succeed compared to their more affluent peers. Reasons cited by an education therapist include differing familial demands on them, alongside contrasting access to resources. While their peers are able to focus solely on their studies and even attend enrichment classes, lower income students lack such privileges. Insidious differences like lifestyle could further widen the gap between both income groups - a ‘simple’ dining out with friends at a restaurant clashes with the frugality necessitated by a lower income.
Higher education is also a costly option. Even for those who are able to overcome the structural barriers limiting their academic performance, the cost of higher education deters many lower income students. Faced with the dilemma of trading off the immediate tangible impact of contributing to family finances for uncertain future income and higher incurred costs, higher education becomes more of a wishlist item compared to the necessity the rest of society accords to it.
Getting a job
Unfortunately, landing a job is intrinsically tied to education, as Singaporean employers still predominantly screen using traditional academic credentials. Granted, diversity in paths via ITE certifications and Polytechnic diplomas have enabled greater recognition of various skill sets, boosting employability of such students. There is, however, room for improvement. Against the backdrop of the highest number of university graduates ever recorded, Singaporeans find themselves jostling for space in the competitive job market.
Those with lesser educational qualifications are consequently relegated to "lower tier" jobs that are often less flexible, lower paying and sometimes, more dangerous. The benefits extended to retain highly skilled employees are not enjoyed by the lower income. Contrast office workers and restaurant employees. During Covid-19, office workers could work from home, whereas restaurant employees needed to report to work given the nature of their jobs. Restaurant employees also have to work beyond office hours, and even on weekends. This comes at a significant cost for lower income employees, who are financially unable to employ others to assist with caregiving roles. Paradoxically, those who require flexible working arrangements the most are unable to enjoy them.
While some have chosen to completely leave the workforce for personal reasons like fulfilling caregiving duties, others have turned to the gig economy for its ‘flexibility’. These include food delivery riders and private hire drivers. Though enticing with its “own time own target” promise, to make a decent living based on this alone requires long hours. Due to them being classified as independent contractors, these workers are unable to enjoy full time benefits. Legal protection for these workers is also low. In modern Singapore, a well-paying job that meets the needs of the household is increasingly becoming a luxury rather than a given.
So then, is poverty a matter of circumstance or consequence of personal choice? While both factors may come into play, I am of the opinion that for most, it is more circumstance than consequence of personal choice. This then begets the question - to what extent is society obliged to help, and how can we help?
What troubles me is the differential rate of increase between wages and inflation. Against the backdrop of pent-up demand, supply chain disruptions and rising oil prices, inflation is forecasted to rise sharply in 2022. Such higher cost of living will most significantly gnaw away at lower incomes families’ disposable income, given they spend a larger proportion of their income on necessities. Inability of wages to keep pace with inflation will lead to a poorer quality of life as purchasing power drops. While the rollout of the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) is commendable, more needs to be done to help lower wage sectors - expansion of PWM to other sectors to uplift more. Regular reviews of the sector specific models to ensure relevance of its framework should also be conducted.
Steps should also be taken to break the poverty cycle. Increasing the accessibility of higher education is one such way. Enabling those financially denied from pursuing their dreams will take time to see results, but will no doubt be effective.
Yet, give too much and risk overreliance and movement towards a welfare state. Schemes like this deplete our coffers, something unlikely to go down well with the many already feeling the pinch about the proposed rise in GST. While wonderful on paper, these ideals might not be as welcomed by the general population who are not the main beneficiaries for such schemes. Really, governance is an act of balance between various stakeholders.
Amidst a myriad of concerns governments have to address, poverty is of paramount importance. Any solution must be sustainable to stand the test of time and resolve structural issues rather than alleviating mere symptoms. Regardless of the root cause, one thing is certain. Society cannot evolve to the next level if we ignore the haunting spectre of poverty.