Poverty Attitudes of Singaporeans by Income and Social Service Status. Irene Y.H. Ng. Sharyn Ng. Department of Social Work

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1 Poverty Attitudes of Singaporeans by Income and Social Service Status Irene Y.H. Ng Sharyn Ng Department of Social Work National University of Singapore For queries, please write to Acknowledgements: We thank Kenny Wong for research assistance, Caritas for including the survey as part of their Partnership Against Poverty Roundtable, and the following agencies for helping to include their clients as survey respondents: Beyond Social Services, Care Corner Queenstown, Fei Yue Community Services, Reach Family Service Centre.

2 Introduction This is a report of the poverty attitudes of 458 Singaporeans. The study was undertaken because poverty and inequality have resurfaced in public discourse as a potential social problem. After five decades of miracle development which saw claims that poverty has been eradicated in the 199s (Mahbubani, 21), recent years have seen an increasing public concern for low-income people (e.g. Othman, 21; Tai, 213; Lien, 213). While the media and pockets of concerned citizens are pointing to the need for more state and societal help towards the new poor in Singapore, do the general population and in fact low-income individuals themselves share similar views? In the first place, do they think that poverty exists in Singapore, and if so, to what extent? Society s views of a social problem have important bearings on the effectiveness of social policy and community initiatives to address an identified social problem. Poverty has evolved greatly as Singapore s economy has transformed from a poor backward village to one of the richest countries in the world. Under such rapid changes, people s definition and understanding of poverty would not only have morphed, but might even have become ambiguous. Methodology With the above motivations, this survey of Singaporeans poverty attitudes was conducted over two months from March to April 213. As a self-funded study with limited resources, attempts were made to reach as diverse a respondent pool as possible through various survey modes. These included (a) an online survey with an url that was disseminated through facebook, , text message and whatsapp; (b) a separate online url for respondents who were participants of a Poverty Roundtable organized by Caritas; (c) hard copy surveys distributed through personal contacts; and (d) hard copy surveys distributed through four voluntary welfare organizations (VWOs), namely Beyond Social Services, Care Corner Queenstown, Fei Yue Community Services, and Reach Family Service Centre. The main online survey was the means to reach as many people as possible, and yielded 25 respondents. The Caritas survey was not targeted at the outset of the study, but came as a bonus when the Roundtable afforded an opportunity to survey and compare the answers of people who would be sympathetic towards the poor. This gave 65 respondents, which was a high percentage of the total of about 8 participants at the Roundtable. The two hard copy surveys were disseminated purposively to reach profiles of respondents that might be under-represented by the online survey, profiles such as those from minority ethnic groups or from low educational or low income backgrounds. The hard copy surveys through personal contacts received 126 responses, and the surveys through VWOs received 94 responses. All these add to a total sample size of 458. Seven respondents who were aged below 21 years old were excluded. This report compares the poverty attitudes of Singaporeans by income and social service status. For income status, respondents were considered low-income if their family income was $2, and below, and not low-income otherwise. $2, was chosen as the cut-off to represent the bottom 1 th percentile of income earners, according to the Household Income Trends Report 212 by the Department of Statistics. Social service status was also measured by a dichotomous indicator, where respondents classified as sympathizers if they held occupations that involved social or health care (such as social workers and nurses) or if they participated in the Caritas Roundtable. Although this

3 classification leaves out others who did not work in a health or social care job and did not attend the Roundtable but were nevertheless sympathetic towards the poor, it was felt that this small error would under-state rather than inflate differences between sympathizers and non-sympathizers. Respondent Profile Table 1 fives the socio-economic backgrounds of survey respondents. The first column gives the distribution for all respondents, the second column for only low-income respondents, and the third column sympathizers. Table 1. Socio-economic Background by Income and Social Service Status Sex (N=441) Male Female Ethnicity (N=439) Chinese Malay Indian Others Religion (N=433) No religion/free thinker/others Islam Catholic Protestant Christian Buddhism/ Chinese traditional beliefs/taoism Highest Educational qualification (N=418) Some secondary and below `N Level, `O Level, VITB, ITE A Level, Polytechnic At least Bachelor degree Family income (N=425) $2, and below $2, - $8, Above $8, Social service status (N=458) Health, social service, Caritas roundtable Not Total (N=458) Low-income (N=75) Sympathizers^ (N=134) N % N % N % N Mean N Mean N Mean Age # # * Pearson Chi-square test of difference significant at *5%, 1%. # Student s t-test of difference significant at *5%, 1%. ^ Sympathizers worked in a social or health care job, or attended the Caritas Roundtable.

4 Considering first the total sample in the first column, there were more female (65.8%) than male respondents, while the ethnic profile of the sample corresponds approximately to that of Singapore s resident population. A considerable proportion of survey respondents were Protestant Christians (39.26%). More than half the sample had obtained at least a Bachelor s degree. While 17.65% had household incomes below $2, approximately two-thirds fell into the middle-income bracket ($2-8). In terms of social service status, about 3% of the sample were either working in the health and social services, or participated in the Caritas Roundtable. Moving to the second column, those from the lowest income bracket ($2 and below) were more likely to be Malay (4.54%) or Indian (14.86%), and to affiliate with Islam as their religion (45.21%), as compared to those with higher incomes. They also had lower educational qualifications; almost half of the low-income respondents did not graduate from secondary school. A significantly lower proportion of the low-income (only 6.67%) was also in the health and social services, or participated in the Caritas Roundtable. Mean age of low-income respondents was higher. The socio-demographic profile of the sample population was also significantly different by social service status. Sympathizers, that is those who were from the health and social services or who have participated in the Caritas Roundtable were more likely to be Chinese (87.6%). They were also less likely to ascribe to Islam or Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese traditional beliefs, but were more likely to be Catholics (24.41%) or Christians (48.82%). Compared to the general respondents, those who worked in social or health services or who attended the Caritas Roundtable were more likely to have a higher level of educational qualifications, with 81.45% having obtained at least a Bachelor s degree. They were also less likely to be in the lowest income bracket ($2 and below), and their household income were more likely to fall in the middle range ($2-$8). Mean age of sympathizers was lower. Respondents Attitudes of Poverty The survey sought to uncover respondents views towards definitions of poverty, severity of poverty, causes of poverty, poor people, and government assistance. These are reported in Table 2, again by income and social service status. In general, respondents adopted a narrow definition of poverty, where most respondents (88.25%) defined poverty as not having enough to eat and live, and much fewer considered inability to afford things needed or things taken for granted as being poor. Most respondents (74.67%) felt that poverty was somewhat or a big problem in Singapore. About half (45.9%) felt that there were many poor people in Singapore, as opposed to few or very few. A majority of the respondents attributed poverty to inevitability of modern life (44.8%) or injustice (3.32%); and therefore also perceived poverty to be caused by circumstances beyond the individual s control (73.6%). Most respondents considered poor people to have about the same moral values as the average person (8.18%). Aid recipients were also seen as really wanting to work. However, although jobs were considered to be available, most respondents believed that these jobs did not pay enough and therefore aid beneficiaries really needed the help.

5

6 Table 2. Poverty Attitudes by Income and Social Service Status Definition of poverty Poor if have enough to buy things one needs, but not things most people take for granted Poor if have enough to eat and live, but not Total Low-income Sympathizers^ (N=134) N % N % N % enough to buy things they need Poor if does not have enough to eat and live without going into debt Severity of poverty in Singapore Poverty is Not a problem Small problem Somewhat of a problem Big problem In terms of numbers, Very few Few Many Cause of poverty Four views Unlucky Laziness or lack of willpower Injustice Inevitable part of modern life Bigger cause of poverty People not doing enough to help themselves Circumstances beyond their control Views of poor people Moral values of poor people Lower About the same Higher Most people who receive money from government Could get along without it They really need the help Most people who receive money from * government really want to work Jobs are available for most aid recipients who really want to work Most jobs aid recipients can get pay enough * to support a family

7 Government Assistance Government programs Make things worse Are not having much impact either way Make things better The amount we as a country are spending on assistance to poor people Too little About the right amount Too much Willing to pay more in taxes for more government spending to help the poor * Pearson Chi-square test of difference significant at *5%, 1%. ^ Sympathizers worked in a social or health care job, or attended the Caritas Roundtable * While most of the respondents believed that government programmes to improve the conditions of poor people were generally making things better (53.1%), many also perceived these programmes to have no impact on the conditions of the poor (43.65%). The majority indicated that Singapore was spending too little on assistance to poor people; and 45.76% were willing to pay more in taxes for the government to increase spending to help the poor. Responses to the survey questionnaire differed on several questions based on income and social service status. Participants from households earning $2 and below were significantly more likely to ascribe to the broad (poor if one has enough to buy things one needs, but not things most people take for granted) and narrow (poor if one does not have enough to eat and live without going into debt) definitions of poverty. On the other hand, they were less likely to ascribe to the middle definition, whereby poverty is defined as the inability to buy things one needs, despite having enough to eat and live. However, the latter difference was not significant. While lower-income respondents did not differ from higher-income respondents on their responses towards the severity of poverty in Singapore, lower-income persons were less likely to attribute poverty to injustice, and more likely to attribute being poor to inevitable circumstances, laziness and bad luck. Lower-income respondents were also significantly less likely to think that poor people had about the same moral values as the average person, but were more likely consider the moral values of poor people as both higher (13.89%) and lower (19.44%) than other Singaporeans. A significantly greater proportion of the low income also believed that aid recipients really wanted to work (93.6%). In their attitudes toward fiscal policy, lower-income respondents were significantly more likely to think that government programmes had either a positive (59.46%) or negative (9.46%) impact on the conditions of poor people. Although the majority still indicated that Singapore was spending too little on assistance to poor people, they were more likely as compared to higher-income respondents to indicate that the country was spending enough (37.84%) or too much (9.46%) on poverty assistance. On the other hand, those who worked in health and social services or who had participated in the Caritas Roundtable were more likely to ascribe to the middle (59.4%) and narrow (95.52%) definitions of poverty. They were also more likely to think that poverty is somewhat of a problem

8 (67.16%) or a big problem (22.39%) and that there are many poor people in Singapore (65.41%). Compared to the general respondents, they were more likely to attribute poverty to injustice (44.36%) rather than to the inevitability of modern life, laziness or bad luck; and to attribute poverty to circumstances beyond one s control (84.9%). They were also less likely to think that aid recipients jobs paid enough to support a family; and were more likely than general respondents to indicate that poor people had about the same moral values as other Singaporeans (89.55%). Significantly more respondents from the health and social services or who have participated in the Caritas Roundtable believed that government programmes are not having much of an impact on the conditions of poor people (52.99%), and that as a country we are spending too little on poverty assistance (72.39%). Significantly more also indicated that they were willing to pay more in taxes to support government spending on poverty assistance (55.64%), compared to the general respondents. Making Sense of Respondents Attitudes For sure, the findings in this survey are not representative of the views of the general population in Singapore. Respondents to a survey stated explicitly to be about poverty would tend to be more sympathetic towards poor people, although the purposive outreach to respondents through targeted contact persons and VWOs reduced this bias somewhat. However, the findings represent the possible views of certain segments of society, e.g. those who work or volunteer with needy people as well as low-income individuals themselves. A few findings are noteworthy. First, the majority of the respondents considered poverty to be a social problem, both in terms of a subjective sense as well as numbers. Most also felt that financial assistance recipients genuinely need help, and are poor largely due to circumstances beyond their control. Such results might not have materialized two decades ago. Second, there are substantial numbers who feel that more should be done for poor people. About half of the respondents felt that government intervention is not having any impact or making things worse, more than half indicated that the government should do more, and about half were willing to pay more taxes. Even among the low-income respondents, more than half were willing to pay more taxes. The third noteworthy finding relates to low-income respondents, who held stricter or more polarized views of poverty than the rest. Higher percentages of low-income respondents than others chose the strictest definition of poverty than the broadest, attributed poverty to laziness than injustice, and felt that too much is spent on assistance to poor people (although this latter percentage is still a low of 9%). In terms of polarity in views, low-income respondents were more inclined than others to feel that poor people had lower as well as higher morals, and also that government assistance were making things better as well as worse. These puzzling findings might be due to the relative positions that respondents see themselves within society, and the respondents personal experience with receiving financial assistance. Some of the low-income recipients might not consider themselves poor, and might be receiving no or little financial assistance. These respondents might therefore hold a strict view of poverty, and take harsher positions towards people that they consider poor. If they can work hard and get by even

9 though struggling through, others can too. Other low-income respondents might have been receiving financial assistance, and their views of whether assistance has done more harm or good might be coloured by their own personal experience navigating formal assistance, which could be very positive or very negative. The fourth noteworthy finding is the contrast in the views of the sympathizers with those that they sympathize with. The group of respondents who worked in social or health care or who were participants of the Caritas Roundtable rated consistently more favourably towards needing to do more. This group tends to be more educated, and perhaps they might be more enlightened about the structural nature of poverty and the requirements for a higher standard of living in a developed country that Singapore is. However, their more liberal views in contrast to the conservative views of low-income respondents provides sobering food for thought on the extent that their enthusiasm will be well-received by even those they are trying to help, as well as the extent and the nature of their efforts to help. While the contrasting results between those needing help and those in helping positions suggest the need for reflections on the speed and pro-activism in responding to poverty, we must recall the first noteworthy finding: that overall, most respondents recognize poverty as a social problem in Singapore, and feel that more should be done by the government, society and themselves. Therefore, the findings still lead to the conclusion that more can be done to tackle poverty in Singapore. However, the findings also suggest that the way to do it is not so straightforward. Diversity in the views on when, where, how, how fast etc. should be noted as advocates, policy makers and practitioners intervene. References Department of Statistics Singapore. (212). Key Household Characteristics and Household Income Trends, 2. Lien, L. (213, March 5). Speech at Budget Debate 213, Singapore Parliament. Mahbubani, K. (21, January 15). Following Singapore s lead on the road to development. Earth Times. Othman, Z. (21, January 4). A national approach needed: Underclass issue should be handled nationally as strapped malay community groups struggle. Today. Tai, J. (213, March 2). More help for S pore s poorest. Straits Times.

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