According to statistics released by the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (DGBAS,
With economic growth and unemployment at their best level in the last three years, some might wonder why the number of low-income households has reached this peak. I believe there are two reasons for this. First, the constant hike of commodity prices nudged up the poverty line, increasing the number living beneath the poverty line. Second, an "all-or-nothing" system of government relief makes people living beneath the poverty line reluctant to rise above it, and encourages those close to the poverty line to fall below it, to gain the benefits of low-income households.
In Taiwan, the poverty line is currently defined as 60 percent of the average national monthly expenditure over the previous year, with some restrictions relating to ownership of personal assets and real estate. As this definition is based on consumer expenditures it naturally has a close relationship to commodity prices. Since the beginning of 2004, skyrocketing oil prices have caused land, sea and air freight costs to rise, which have in turn pushed up domestic commodity prices. In July this year, the annual rate of increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was 3.32 percent, the highest in six years.
In addition, the Wholesale Price Index (WPI), which is a lead indicator for increase in consumer prices, registered double-digit growth for the first time in 23 years in August, with an increase for the year at 12.2 percent as of October. This caused the "misery index," a combination of the unemployment rate and the consumer price index on an annual basis, to reach a 22-year high.
According to the Social Service and Rescue Law (
Even those who subsist just above the poverty line hope to reduce their income so that they also can be classified as low-income households.
According to the survey conducted by the Taiwan Fund for Children and Families (
In theory, Taiwan is now a liberal and democratic society, and social mobility should be the norm. Regrettably, according to a study of disposable income in Taiwan by the DGBAS, households with the highest disposable incomes number 2.6 persons on average, while families with the lowest disposable income number 4.7 persons. With rising commodity prices and the pluralization and privatization of the education market, economically disadvantaged families will find themselves in an increasingly weak position to take care of and educate their children.
To halt the increasing number of low-income households and to prevent poverty from passing on to the next generation, the following measures should be taken.
First, upwardly adjust the poverty line. If we take the US for example, the ratio of people below the poverty line reached its highest point in 1959, at 22.4 percent and reached its lowest level at 11.1 percent in 1973. In Taiwan, only 0.89 percent live below the poverty line (if calculated on a household basis, the ratio is 1.14 percent.) The proportion is very different from that in the US. With the passage of the Social Service and Rescue Law (
Second, vocational training and career guidance should be provided by the government for those who are financially disadvantaged, with specific incentives to find employment.
In the government's drive to reform education, more educational resources should be given to financially disadvantaged families in the form of scholarships and subsidies, so that poor students do not find themselves at a disadvantage The government should also work with civic groups and make use of their resources (encouraging business, religious groups and foundations to establish scholarships for disadvantaged students), and assist social work departments of universities and service organizations to set up free study counseling.
Education is, after all, the best way to shake off poverty. One good example is that of Chen Shui-bian (
Wang Yun-tung is an assistant professor in the Social Work Department of National Taiwan University.
TRANSLATED BY DANIEL CHENG
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