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Are more Singaporeans financially stressed?

The first thing that came to my mind when I read this report – “MND proposes new stat board to regulate real estate agency industry“ - was whether the millions of dollars that will be spent yearly on this new bureaucracy could be put to better use, like helping the poor.

Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, the costs of running the new statutory board may to some extent be passed on to the real estate profession and ultimately to consumers.

Helping the needy?

Well, on the same day, there was also another report on Channelnewsasia - "NTUC's social enterprises contribute S$107m in 2009 to help workers" - which threw up the same question: could the money have been better used to help the poor?

The report states that:

"NTUC's 12 social enterprises contributed S$107 million last year to help workers and their families manage the downturn, a 41 per cent increase from 2008.

It's the highest amount of assistance given out by the labour movement's social enterprises since they started operations in the 1970s ... S$11 million went into the Labour Movement's U Care Fund which benefited more than 170 thousand Singaporeans last year".

Helping 170,000 needy Singaporeans does sound like helping a lot of people.

Since there were so many needy Singaporeans who need help, are more Singaporeans financially stressed?

Does it mean that the help given per person for the whole year was only about $64.71 or about 18 cents a day?

As to the report that "[close] to S$90 million was channeled to help members and their families manage the cost of living with rebates and discounts", is it really appropriate to describe rebates on purchases and discount vouchers as helping members and their families?

Imagine every commercial entity putting out press releases to say that they helped Singaporeans because they gave out a lot of rebates on their products sold and discount vouchers to buy their products!

Less needy people need help?

According to the latest statistics from the North East Community Development Council (CDC), "[the] number of applications for social assistance continues to slide by 10 per cent over the previous quarter. The CDC said the consistent drop since the second half of last year is another clear sign that economic health is returning". [1]

It has been reported previously that at its peak, CDCs had a 47 per cent increase in applications for financial assistance. [2]

So, if applications continue to drop by 10 per cent to, let's say about 20 per cent in total from the peak, does it mean that the number applying for assistance may still be about 18 per cent more than before the crisis began?

If this is indeed the situation, then how can we say that the economy is booming and "is another clear sign that economic health is returning", if new people seeking assistance, in addition to those who have already applied in the past, are still so high?

To illustrate this point with a simple example, if there were 22,449 applications for financial assistance before the crisis, and this increased by 47 per cent to 33,000, and then falls over the last three quarters to 26,400, does it mean that the number of new people applying every month now on a continuing basis is still about 18 per cent more than before the crisis?

To sum up, I think as long as we still have more new people applying every month than before the crisis, we may not be out of the woods yet.

Other indicators of financial stress

Let's look at the latest statistics on household incomes, housing, wages and unemployment, which may give us some indication as to whether more Singaporeans are financially stressed?

Household incomes

According to the Department of Statistics’ Key Household Income Trends 2009 report [3], 2009 household income declined across the board for all households, with the median income dropping by 2.5 per cent in real terms.

The household income of those staying in 1 and 2-room HDB flats declined by a whopping 13.9 per cent in 2009.

For employed households, the average monthly income per household member for 2009 was only $334, for the bottom decile of households.

With about 1.2 million households in total, this means that about 108,000 households have per capita income which is way below the $500 benchmark generally used by the Community Development Councils (CDCs) in assessing the need for financial assistance.

As the above refers only to employed households, we may also need to examine how many of the “not employed and also not retiree” households of about 51,000 (4.3 per cent of total households), may also have per capita income below $500.

To this number, we may also need to include the number of retiree households of about 63,000 (5.3 per cent of total households) that may also be below $500 per capita, to aggregate the total number of such “low per capita” households in Singapore.

I estimate this figure to be about 150,000 households.

Against this statistic, perhaps we need to ask whether some may be falling through the cracks, as only 33,000 families are receiving financial assistance from Comcare, inspite of the 33,000 being already a 47 per cent increase in successful Comcare applications over the last year.

The second decile of employed households had an average per household member income of $626.

This group of about 108,000 households may also have quite a significant number that may be below the $500 per capita benchmark.

Although the report says that the Gini, which is a measure of the income gap, has declined further in 2009, after taking into account that a household received on the average $1,273 a year in Government benefits, I would like to point out that most of the benefits are not extra cash that can be utilised by the household.

For example:

-       Medisave top-ups for the elderly can only be used for medical expenses

-       Post-Secondary Education Account top-ups can only be used when your children enter tertiary education by which time the increase in fees may be more than the top-up

-       Only 29 per cent of Workfare is paid in cash with the balance 71 per cent to CPF (not the Ordinary Account)

-       GST Credits are to offset the GST increase and not extra cash

-       Usave rebates when electricity tariffs have increased

-       property tax rebates when property tax was increased last year

-       Service and Conservancy Charges (S & CC) rebates when S & CC had gone up

-       Etc.

Moreover, I cannot understand the rationale to include medical subsidies and Medifund payouts as “income benefit”?

If I choose to go to the Class C ward in the hospital, how can the 80 per cent subsidy in the medical fees be counted as an “income benefit” to me that has helped to reduce the income gap?

If I am poor and cannot pay my medical fees, how can the Medifund payout to waive some or all of my medical fees, be counted as “reducing the income gap”?

Is there any country in the world that consider such “income benefits” as reducing the income gap?

Housing

The latest Housing Development Board (HDB) Sample Household Survey indicates that 10.7 per cent of elderly households aged 65 and above living in HDB flats, and a whopping 32.3 per cent of “future elderly” who are now aged between 55 to 64, are still paying off their HDB mortgages. Moreover, between three and five per cent of these households have problems just meeting their daily expenses. [4]

Wages

Looking at workers' wages, rather than household incomes, according to the MOM's Labour Market report 2009 [5], real earnings fell by 3.2 and 1.2 per cent, in 2009 and 2008, respectively.

Employment

According to the MOM’s latest Employment Situation First Quarter 2010 report [6], on a non-seasonally adjusted basis, the resident unemployment rate was 3.1 per cent in March, which is higher than the 2.9 per cent in December 2009.

The seasonally adjusted figure for the number of unemployed residents was 66,300 in March, which is also higher than the 61,100 in December 2009.

Leong Sze Hian

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References:

[1] "Number of jobs available goes up sharply for North East District", CNA, May 4

[2] “ComCare sees highest number of applicants in 2009, up 47% on-year", CNA, Jan 27

[3] Department of Statistics’ Key Household Income Trends 2009

[4] “Max out your housing loan? Think again”, ST, May 1

[5] MOM's Labour Market report 2009

[6] Employment Situation First Quarter 2010