The jobless slip through the net of COVID-19 financial relief and welfare

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The unemployment rate has risen to its highest in more than nine years, but potential benefactors may hold back from applying for the relaxed Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) Scheme due to pre-existing stigma.

Photo: Photo courtesy of Sara Cheng.

To support the unemployed, the Hong Kong government announced in April that it would relax the asset limits for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) Scheme applications by 100 percent for six months, while financial requirements and stigmatisation continue to trouble the needy. 

“We find a lot of unemployed people will not be eligible [for CSSA],” said Kalina Tsang, the director-general at Oxfam Hong Kong. She explained that the asset test after adjustment would still be “very harsh”, given that it would take the cash value of insurance into account. 

For families that have unemployed and in-work members, doubling the asset limits might not make CSSA accessible as the scheme is household-based, said professor Maggie Lau Ka Wai, the acting director of Centre for Social Policy and Social Change at Lingnan University. 

From June 2020, for instance, the asset limit for an able-bodied adult will increase from HK$33,000 to $66,000, and that of a family with three adults or children will increase from HK$66,000 to $132,000. The relief package did not offer other unemployment-related aids. 

The stigmatisation of CSSA is another hindrance to those seeking assistance. Tsang mentioned Tommy, a part-time waiter at a Hong Kong-style cafés who lost his job in February. 

“He often told us that he would not want to apply for CSSA because he thought he had a sound and clear mind,” Tsang said. Fearing that the community would “look down on him”, he hesitated to get supplementary payments from the government. 

“People think that they [CSSA recipients] are lazy to look for jobs, but in reality, it is because of the economic restructuring – that’s why they couldn’t find jobs, or even if they could, they got low-paid jobs,” said Lau.

Social Welfare Department in Yuen Long. Photo courtesy of Timah Rlaim / CC BY-SA.

Tsang suggested the establishment of a team distinct from CSSA to examine unemployment benefits and combat stigmatisation. She added that the government could make direct reference to the asset limits of the Working Family Allowance Scheme when reviewing fundings – for example, the limit for a one-person household is $266,000. 

In terms of social protection, she emphasised the need for unemployment insurance, which is practised in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Korea. 

CSSA Alliance, a local concern group, interviewed 250 residents of Yau Tsim Mong District and Sham Shui Po last month. 36.8 percent and 20 percent responders found the measure slightly helpful and unhelpful for those affected by joblessness respectively. Only 10 percent found it very helpful. 

Half said they would not seek CSSA if they were unemployed, as compared to the 40 percent that would take advantage of the relaxed financial requirements. 

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased to 4.2 percent in the period between January and March from 3.7 percent in the period between December 2019 and February 2020, the highest in more than nine years. For CSSA applications, there was a rise of 2,017 cases in March, and unemployment cases grew 10.9 percent, amounting to 14,647 cases.

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