How can Budget 2021 adequately address the needs of our low-income communities?

March 12, 2021

Last month, the Singapore government announced that the theme of Budget 2021 is Emerging Stronger Together — a bid to help local families, workers and businesses to continue to weather and recover from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the immediate term, as well as to accelerate the structural adaptations of Singapore’s economy in the long term.

Many different aspects were covered in Budget 2021, from recognising essential healthcare workers to environmental measures and of course, monetary support for Singaporeans. Apart from the newly introduced SGD$900 million Household Support Package for all Singaporean families this year, the Jobs Support Scheme introduced last year is set to be extended, and the SG United Jobs and Skills Package will also receive an SGD$5.4 billion boost to continue supporting the local workforce and new hires.

Of course, Budget 2021 aims to benefit all Singaporeans, regardless of financial background. However, there is always more work that can be done when it comes to supporting the evolving needs of our low-income communities, and who better to hear from than locals on the ground?

Early last month, OPPi collaborated with local co-operatives A Good Space (AGS) and the Community for Advocacy and Political Education (CAPE) to spark conversations among Singaporeans regarding what they think can and should be done to better support the low-income communities locally. We set up an OPPi poll and invited locals of various demographics to share their thoughts and responses with us. And on 18 February, AGS organised The Ground Speaks: Budget 2021 Conversations, an insightful dialogue session with young CAPE members and local parliamentarians Louis Ng, Pritam Singh and Shahira Abdullah to discuss the results of said poll. (The highlights from this dialogue session can be found here!)

As part of OPPi’s post-results analytics, respondents will be clustered into groups depending on their answers. In this particular poll, participants were split into three groups — A, B and C. In total, of the 492 participants of the poll, a large percentage (41%) were between the ages of 21–30, and a significant number (23%) had a monthly individual income level of less than $1,500. There was also a significant number of older respondents (25% were between the ages of 31–40, and 18% between the ages of 41–50) as well as respondents with a higher earning power (18% took home more than $6,500 monthly).

Inclusivity was one of the topics discussed in the poll, and a large majority of respondents agree that there is a lot more work that can be done to care for and make marginalised communities like the LGBTQ+ and disabled communities feel safer in Singapore.

Despite the varied demographics, the poll generally saw respondents agreeing unanimously to many of the statements posed. The statement that garnered the most support was about the lack of disability-friendly features in SkillsFuture courses. To this, 460 respondents agreed that more skills-upgrading courses should have disability-accessible features such as courses being screen-reader friendly or courses adopting the use of Simple or Basic English.

Another one of the statements with the highest consensus among respondents was about monetary assistance for out-of-pocket costs for low-income communities. 450 respondents agreed that more financial assistance should be provided to help low-income communities defray the miscellaneous costs associated with attending upskilling courses, such as travel fees, having to take time off work and childcare costs among others.

A number of respondents went on to share further thoughts with regard to this statement. Some were of the opinion that we should definitely be investing more in the people around us, and the wider community and large corporations could chip in to provide allowances for members of low-income communities to defray out-of-pocket costs. Others called on the need to examine and publicly publish the effectiveness of upskilling based on SkillsFuture programmes over the years. Instead of placing so much emphasis on upskilling, the existing expertise that members of the low-income communities already possess should be more recognised and valued. Some also brought up the fact that mental health services should be made affordable and accessible for low-income folks as well.

In the same vein of providing financial aid, approximately 449 respondents agreed that families living in rental flats under the Public Rental Scheme should be given support with their rental in the light of COVID-19, in the form of rent freeze and/or full or partial relief of rent arrears. To this, many went on to add that this should be implemented on a case-by-case basis as a short-term solution.

There was also a point raised about making it clear that this will not be a handout, but an optional helping hand for those who really need it, so that dignity can be maintained even as the fear and stress of monetary issues is alleviated. This is a lesser-talked about, but equally important point, as inequality cannot be solved with money alone. In fact, a lot of the times in the provision of financial aid, status inequalities are exacerbated, which can have negative effects on the recipient’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

As much as aid comes from a place of good intentions, we should also be mindful of the specific needs of the individuals we are helping, instead of employing blanket solutions of monetary handouts as the solution to every issue.

While most respondents agreed that more aid can and should be provided for low-income folks, there was a marked change in responses to the statement “To decrease social stratification, increase the number of rental flats and ensure larger living spaces for low-income households, we should designate more units within existing HDB blocks to be covered under the Public Rental Scheme.”

As a whole, approximately 357 respondents agreed with this statement while 37 disagreed (a further 89 were left undecided), which remains the majority, but further analysis shows that many of the respondents that disagreed with this statement were from group C. As mentioned previously, OPPi’s post-results analytics clusters participants into groups based on their responses. Interestingly, a significant number of respondents in group C took home relatively higher monthly salaries of over $6,500 or between $3,500-$4000 (as opposed to a large number of group A taking home less than $1,500 monthly and most of group B taking home either less than $1,500 or between $3,500-$4000 monthly). Of course, that’s not to say that these individuals necessarily voted against the statement, but their demographics might have a part to play the decision-making process.

With regard to this statement, a number of further thoughts were shared, both for and against the suggestion. One of the points raised for the statement was that having mixed housing would allow the low-income communities better access to public resources available in regular public housing estates. Furthermore, this would help to destigmatize the societal perception of rental flats, and with a larger living space, families currently crammed in small rental flats would have a greater peace of mind and an improved overall wellbeing. However, others disagreed and stated that rental flats should not be seen as a permanent solution for low-income folks, so they should remain as designated sites as a reminder of this. Concerns regarding the already-limited public housing supply were also raised, with some respondents stating that larger units have been grossly oversubscribed in recent application cycles, and the integration of rental flats into public housing estates might further limit the supply of flats available for the general public.

To this, there is no clear right or wrong opinion to have, but what’s important is that we are able to hear each and every perspective, whether popular or not, to weigh the pros and cons of each side of the coin.

On that note, the statement that left respondents the most divided was with regard to incentivising or penalising charities and social assistance agencies depending on the number of low-income families that they have successfully helped to get out of poverty rather than the number of low-income families that they are currently serving. To this, approximately 230 respondents agreed, 144 disagreed, and 111 were left undecided. For this particular statement, there was a rather balanced mix of agrees and disagrees from each group.

Some pointed out that many caseworkers are already very heavily burdened in their jobs, and the introduction of this new system might further stretch these individuals to their limits. Others mentioned that it might be helpful to incorporate incentives into the process to encourage and acknowledge the good work of caseworkers, but not penalties. A number of respondents also raised concerns about defining “getting out of poverty”. How do we set a hard and fast baseline for something so complex, and how do we then apply this yardstick to different individuals with different needs?

Another valid point raised is that this system might further bury the structures that reinforce poverty in our society by shifting the blame to charity organisations and individual caseworkers instead. Some also strongly feel that social services should not be treated as a quantifiable game with rewards or penalties, and that this responsibility shouldn’t even fall solely on the shoulders of charity organisations, but on the government and specific policies in place such as fair wage, education and housing policies instead.

Of course, this topic is a very complex one and cannot be solved by any one individual or organisation, or with any one scheme or policy. It will take years to undo the current social stratification structures in place that reinforce this inequality in question, but we should all be making steps in that direction, no matter how small.

Our 492 respondents have varied views, but they might not be representative of the population as a whole. So what do you think? How can Budget 2021 better address the needs of our low-income community? Join our community group on Facebook and let us know. We’d love to hear what you have to say!

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