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An adult and a child need $3,218 a month to meet basic needs, according to study

How much money does a household of parents and children in Singapore need to meet their basic needs? According to researchers, a couple with two children (aged 7-12 and 13-18) need $6,426 a month, while a single parent with one child (aged 2-6) needs $3,218 a month.

The team of researchers, led by Dr Ng Kok Hoe from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), National University of Singapore, conducted 24 focus group discussions involving 196 participants from diverse backgrounds. They applied a consensus-based methodology known as Minimum Income Standards (MIS), which can be used to determine the household budgets necessary for households of various kinds to meet their basic needs.

The team’s previous study, published in 2019, investigated the budgets necessary for households of older people living alone or as couples. The updated budget for a single elderly person is $1,421 in 2021, taking price inflation into account. This new report measures the costs of basic needs for a household of parents (single or partnered) with children for the first time.

Illustration: Jolene Tan

Building on a general definition of basic needs determined in the 2019 study, focus group participants generated lists of items and services related to: housing and utilities; things needed in each area in a HDB flat; personal care and clothing; food; transport; social participation; education and childcare; and healthcare. The needs of children were considered according to their gender and age group (below 2 years old; 2-6; 7-12; 13-18 or 19-25).

Each item or service was only included if participants reached a consensus that it was a basic need, and could explain why. Participants also agreed on rules for when and how an item can be shared among family members. For instance, whether children can share a bedroom depends on factors like their ages and genders, and the demands of working or schooling limit how many individuals can share a laptop.

Based on this analysis, the research team has also created an online calculator, allowing users to see breakdowns for household budgets for parents (single or partnered) living with up to three children in varying combinations of age and gender.

Key findings

  1. In 2021, the household budgets necessary to meet basic needs are:
    • $3,218 per month for a single parent with one child (aged 2-6).
    • $6,426 per month for partnered parents with two children (aged 7-12 and 13-18).
    • $1,421 per month for a single elderly person.

  2. The budgets for the two working-age households are both around $1,600 per household member. As the average work income per household member for the third decile group of employed households in Singapore in 2020 is $1,609, this indicates that 30% of working households earn less than required for these two types of households to meet their basic needs.

  3. The researchers suggest that a reasonable starting point for a living wage in Singapore is $2,906 per month. This is based on the average budget for a couple with two children, assuming two full-time earners, and adjusting for taxes as well as all universal and major means-tested benefits. The median work income among all workers in 2020 exceeded this amount by 56%, but current PWM wages fall significantly below.

  4. The costs of education and care dominated the budgets for children’s needs, inspiring animated discussion in the focus groups. While some costs associated with children decline with age, others increase sharply. As current measures supporting education and care taper off for older children, parents are likely to face greater financial strain as their children grow up.

  5. In calculating a budget for housing, the researchers found that current public housing policies effectively double housing costs for single parents who have never married, compared to partnered, widowed or divorced parents.

“These two waves of research give us a comprehensive view of basic needs across the life course,” said Dr Ng, who also leads the Social Inclusion Project at LKYSPP. “They provide a concrete benchmark and starting point for discussing how people may achieve the incomes they need, including allowing us to calculate a possible living wage.”

Illustration: Jolene Tan

Said Associate Professor Teo You Yenn from Nanyang Technological University, another member of the research team and author of the best-selling This Is What Inequality Looks Like: “The focus groups were especially animated in discussing education, with participants expressing strong consensus for and yet frustration at the need for tuition and enrichment. Both parents and young people showed concern that economic barriers can prevent children from obtaining necessary qualifications.”

Asked to comment on the report, Linda Lim, Professor Emerita of corporate strategy and international business at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, said, “Singaporeans agree that we need to raise the incomes of low-wage workers—but to what level? This careful and timely study provides a ground-up estimate of what it costs for families with children and elderly households to maintain a basic standard of living in our expensive city. It shows that current income-support systems are inadequate.”

MIS research was first developed by researchers at Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Social Policy in the UK. It has since been used in the UK, Japan, South Africa, Mexico, France and Ireland. Matt Padley, the Centre’s Associate Director, said, “The value of this methodology lies not in assuming that basic living standards are universal, but in the recognition that shared conceptions of living standards are shaped by specific contexts and reflect local circumstances. This report is at once rooted in the particular context of Singapore, identifying pressing economic and policy challenges, but it also alerts us to broader questions that many countries need to urgently address.”

Abigail Davis, also Associate Director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy, said, “This report makes an important contribution to public policy debates spanning every aspect of citizens’ lives across the life course. Through detailed analysis of MIS for different households compared with levels of state assistance the findings make a clear and compelling case for the reassessment of current provision for parents, particularly lone parent households, and for pensioners.”

Find out more about MIS and the latest report.

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