A Family-Centred Approach in Helping Poor Children in Hong Kong

Fig. 13.1
Rate of children aged 6–14 in low income households (2001–2012 1st half) (Hong Kong Council of Social Service 2012)

Households with children, single-parent households and immigrant families are the three most vulnerable groups to have financial difficulties. The poverty rate ranged from 21.8 % (number of household =167,900) for households with children to 49.9 % (number of household = 37,600) for single-parent households (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government 2012), and 32.6 % for children of immigrant families (Chou 2013).

Among the 156,700 working poor households, 60.1 % have children, of which 32.1 % have one child; 23.9 % have two children; and 4.1 % have three or more children. Among the 31,700 new-arrival poor households, 83 % have children. Among 28,500 single-parent poor households, 51.7 % of the parents have low educational attainment; 92.4 % are with poor job skills and 37.8 % are employed part-time or underemployed (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government 2012). Children of the immigrant families have joined their parents to migrate to Hong Kong from different parts of Mainland China. The majority of their parents’ educational level is low and has to work as unskilled workers. Unsurprisingly, the poverty rate of children of the immigrant families (36.2 %) was two times higher than the children of local families (12.1 %) (Chou 2013).

In brief, children of the poor come from single-parent households; from families whose parents are with low educational attainment and employed in unskilled part-time work or are underemployed; and from immigrant families.

13.4 Multi-dimensional Effects of Poverty on Children and Their Families in Hong Kong

With the birth of the first child, a couple has to adjust their marital life to allow time and energy for child rearing (Carter and McGoldrick 1989). Taking up this developmental task is particularly challenging for vulnerable families such as the dual-career families, sole parent families and families in poverty. For families with economic hardship, they would be devoid of sufficient family resource to better take care of their children, which in turn would undoubtedly affect the children’s healthy growth and development. Family resource refers to the amount of time spent with family; actual household income and the efficacy in financial management; human capital such as parents’ educational attainment; psychological capital such as stress-coping efficacy of parents; and social capital such as social support from friends and relatives (Ma et al. 2009). The situation would be worse in view of insufficient societal support (e.g., provision of health care service and social welfare services) provided for these families.

13.4.1 Effects of Poverty on the Children

Results of longitudinal studies (Micklewright 2004; Davis et al. 2010) conducted in western countries such as the UK, the USA and Australia have shown that the longer children stay in poverty, the more deprived and disadvantaged they would be in terms of access to quality education, better health care and social services in society, and the greater association of these socio-economic disadvantages with the unfavourable long term child development and health outcomes. What is the situation of children of the poor in Hong Kong?

Children whose parents with unfavourable socio-economic status usually have fewer options when making important choices, such as finding a good school or a good job; and their motivation to break out of poverty might be influenced by poverty, resulting in a vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty (Shek 2004).

The results of a local survey (Boy’s and Girl’s Club Association of Hong Kong 2006) had shown that the health condition of children of the poor was worse than that of children without economic hardship; their psychological well-being was less satisfactory with lower self-esteem; they experienced more learning challenges at school; and their overall quality of life was lower than children who are not living in poverty. Yip’s (in press) secondary analysis of the data gathered from the official thematic study (2009) had indicated that children of the poor were the most unhappy group in comparison to the elderly poor and the unemployed adults.

Children of poor families face different kinds of deprivation, which exist when they do not have and cannot afford things perceived by a majority in the community as being essential for all. Among the perceived necessities, the results of Saunders et al.’s study (2013) have shown that medical needs, such as dental check-ups (29.2 %), affording medication (17.4 %) and emergency doctor consultations (14.3 %) are essentials of life that most poor people are deprived of in Hong Kong. This may account for the poorer health outcome of the children of the poor (Boy’s and Girl’s Club Association of Hong Kong 2006). About 6–7 % of the economically deprived families have not had any financial capacity to engage in social activities such as visiting a tea house or having any general leisure activity (Saunders et al. 2013), which explains why the overall quality of life for children of the poor is lower than children without economic hardship.

13.4.2 Effects of Poverty on the Families

Similar to the results of the Australian study (Zubrick et al. 2000), the results of Ma et al.’s study (2009) have shown that low-income families have less family resources to perform their roles and functions. Economic hardships not only affect families’ ability to meet their family members’ basic needs (e.g., food and physical care) but have also negatively impacted on parents’ health outcome (Boy’s and Girl’s Club Association of Hong Kong 2006), parenting (Ma et al. 2011), family health (Ma et al. 2009, 2011) and perceived satisfaction toward family life (Yip in press).

The health status of the poor parents was less satisfactory than the health status of the parents without economic hardship (Boy’s and Girl’s Club Association of Hong Kong 2006), with lower satisfaction on their overall quality of life in comparison to the families without poverty (Yip in press).

The family health of the low-income families, which was measured by the level of family functioning in two territory-wide telephone surveys (Ma et al. 2009, 2011), was not as good as family health of families with high and median household income. For poor families, the degree of satisfaction toward their family life (mean scores = 3.68) was lower than the degree of satisfaction (mean scores = 3.94) of families without financial difficulties (Yip in press).

The parental stress of low-income families was higher than that of median and high income families. Low-income parents with less education were less warm and nurturing than the high income parents or the better educated parents (Ma et al. 2011); the results were in line with Tam and Lam’s findings (2003), in which children of the low-income families tended to perceive their father as indifferent or dictatorial.

Family functioning was found to have mediating effects on the relationship between the perceived parental stress and the parental warmth of the mother with younger children; that is, the higher the parental stress, the lower the perceived family functioning, which in turn was associated with lower level of warmth (Ma and Lai 2013). However, in reading the results of these studies, one has to be cautious of the limitations including their cross-sectional research design which renders them impossible to identify the causality among different variables under study. Most importantly, the majority of the studies have failed to study the linkage of these family variables to children’s short-term and long-term developmental outcome, with the exception of one study (Shek 2002, 2008).

In Shek’s study (2002), there was stronger negative association between family functioning and adolescent’s psychological well-being for economically disadvantaged families. The follow-up study (Shek 2008) showed that the negative effect of poorer family functioning on adolescent adjustment in these families lingered on.

Despite the gloomy picture painted above, poor families have their strengths and resilience to face their difficulties. Social networks and family relationships are the protective factors of poor families to prevent malfunctioning of the families (Lam 2011). The results of a cross-sectional telephone survey with representative samples (Ma et al. 2011) have indicated the powerful influence of the traditional Chinese cultural belief—importance of the parental roles to discipline and educate the children—in shaping parenting of Chinese parents irrespective of the socio-economic status and family structure. Low-income parents place high regards on educating their children as much as the median and high income parents do. The same is applicable to sole parent families; they value the importance of educating their children as much as the nuclear and extended families do (Ma et al. 2011).

Since poor families have insufficient financial and family resources to deal with their numerous difficulties (e.g., finance and illnesses), they tend to rely on outside help and assistance (e.g., their social network and social service agencies), except for childcare (Yip in press). However, as argued by Yip (in press), what is unsure is whether parents of the poor take care of their children without seeking any outside assistance is simply because alternatives or options in childcare arrangement in the community is lacking.

13.5 Poverty Alleviation Policy in Hong Kong

Symptomatic relief through cash transfer or financial assistance cannot tackle poverty in general, nor break the vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty in particular. Child poverty has been found to relate to some specific characteristics of their parents such as teenage pregnancy, low income, low education attainment, and growing up in single-parent households in the UK (Karger and Stoesz 1998; DiNitto 1995). In Africa, poverty is closely linked to outbreak of epidemics (e.g., malaria, AIDS), war or natural disasters (e.g., drought) (Sachs 2005).

In Hong Kong, the root of poverty lies in: (a) personal mishaps such as physical and mental illnesses and disabilities (Tang and Lam 2005; p. 11); (b) familial factors such as migration (Chou 2013); (c) unemployment, underemployment and low income brought about by rapid economic changes (Wong 2013); and (d) the dynamic interplay among personal (e.g., illnesses and disability), familial (e.g., migration, divorce and separation) and societal factors (e.g., economic downturn, outbreak of SARS).

Ending child poverty calls for the government’s commitment to delineate policy measures and social interventions to address the complex phenomenon underlying poverty. Past major policy measures and social interventions developed by the government and the community to combat poverty in general and to help poor children in particular are listed in Table 13.1. These poverty alleviation interventions are broadly grouped into three types on the basis of their primary function in meeting the children’s needs: (a) financial and material needs; (b) academic and educational needs; and (c) other developmental needs.

Table 13.1
Child poverty alleviation policies and programmes (Tang and Wong 2013; Policy Address 2014)

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Interventions on financial and material needs

1. Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) scheme

1. “Grant-in-aid” Brightens Children’s Lives Charity Project provides free education-related materials and activities to children in poor

2. Student Financial Assistance (SFA) scheme

2. Free extra-curriculum activities funded by the Apple Daily Charitable Foundation, which is donated by the public

3. School Textbook Assistance (TA) scheme

4. Student Travel Subsidy (STS) scheme

5. Subsidy Scheme for Internet Access Charges (SIA)

6. Financial assistance and services funded by the Community Care Fund (CCF)

7. Full basic allowancea

Interventions on educational needs