Rich-poor Gap Grows in Hong Kong



The gap between the rich and poor in Hong Kong has widened steadily since the handover 15 years ago. But government officials insist that income disparities have remained largely unchanged for the past 10 years.The median income for low income families increased to HK$7,000 a month last year from HK$5,500 in 2006. But at the upper end of the scale there was a more substantial surge – to more than HK$100,000 a month in 2011 from HK$82,500 five years earlier.

This worsened the so-called Gini coefficient – the system used for measuring the wealth gap – to a post-1997 high of 0.537 in 2011 on a scale of 0 to 1.

But the Census and Statistics Department says the gap is not as bad as numbers suggest as government relief programs have eased the situation.

Officials also say an aging population and higher academic achievements of middle- and high-income earners affect the figures. But concern groups accuse officials of trying to play down inequality and claim there has been a failure to help the needy. The data shows that households with a monthly income of less than HK$4,000 increased by 15,599 to 226,045 last year from 210,446 in 2006. Yet households with incomes of more than HK$40,000 soared by 176,052 to 547,961 from 371,909.

In sectors including finance, insurance and real estate, the average monthly income rose to HK$16,000 in 2011 from HK$12,500 in 2006. In the wholesale, retail, restaurants and hotels sectors, the average was HK$10,000 against HK$9,500 in 2006.Government statisticians reached conclusions by dividing 1.94 million economically active households into 10 groups based on monthly incomes.Those in the first decile – 10 percent of the working population with lowest earnings – collected on average HK$7,000 last year, compared with HK$100,310 in the top bracket. But among findings that jarred was that in the first decile the average monthly income for all households, including the elderly and retirees, was HK$2,070 last year compared with HK$2,250 in 2006. Yet Census and Statistics commissioner Lily Ou-yang Fong put a more positive spin on the findings, claiming that when taxation is taken into account along with welfare handouts, the Gini coefficient for 2011 would be 0.475 – or the same as in 2006.

“Figures suggest that income redistribution from the upper end to the lower end through taxation and the provision of social benefits has actually helped narrow the income disparity,” Fong said, adding that people should accept the official figures and not indulge in theories about an attempt to disguise facts. But Sze Lai-shan, a community organizer with the Society for Community Organization, said: “The government is being shameful in playing with figures and failing to resolve a widening disparity between rich and poor.” Likewise, Hong Kong Council of Social Service chief executive Christine Fang Man-sang said the figures show the underprivileged have not shared in the benefits of economic development. And City University economist Li Kui-wai supported those views, saying income disparity “has become serious as the census department has taken into account relief measures including a one-off cash payment of HK$6,000.” Nor was Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun-ying in a mood to gloss over findings, saying the struggle to maintain “basic livelihoods among the poor and their income level has become serious.”

So a working group will look at the problem within weeks, and he will set up an anti-poverty commission soon after taking office on July 1.