Adam’s situation is not unique. Many of some 300,000 Singapore residents who earn below $2,000 have seen sudden dips in their income during the pandemic, especially after new measures on April 7 restricted businesses deemed non-essential, among other things.
Beyond Social Services helped 84 families financially in the whole of last month. But just five days into the circuit breaker, it received 123 applications for such help.
The charity contacted 300 families it is helping, and three in four said they needed more financial aid.
Dr Ng Kok Hoe, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said the “stark policy lesson” is that cracks that are present in normal times will only widen during a crisis. “Problems with food security among poor households, educational inequality, overcrowded housing in the public rental scheme, inadequate social security outside the wage economy… these are the challenges we must tackle with more resolve when the crisis lifts.”
By Ng Kok Hoe, Teo You Yenn, Neo Yu Wei, Ad Maulod and Stephanie Chok
For people living in Singapore today, how will the ongoing COVID-19 crisis affect their capacity to meet basic needs?
In our research, through focus group discussions, we crafted this definition of basic standards of living in Singapore:
A basic standard of living in Singapore is about, but more than just housing, food, and clothing. It is about having opportunities to education, employment and work-life balance, as well as access to healthcare. It enables a sense of belonging, respect, security, and independence. It also includes choices to participate in social activities, and the freedom to engage in one’s cultural and religious practices.
While the crisis is unfolding, it is premature to predict its long-term consequences, and the specifics of how various social groups–separated by income and wealth, age, or household type–will be differently affected. But reflecting on specific components of this definition now can still shed light on the profound impact of this public health crisis on various members of our society.
We have already seen the crisis affect patterns in the purchase, consumption, availability and prices of food. Depending on when and where one shops, supermarkets sometimes run out of lower-priced staples, and only ‘healthier’, pricier options are left on the shelves. Because lower-income families do not have the means to stock up on food supplies, they have to make daily trips to shops. This adds to time pressures that have intensified as children require more supervision at home due to school closures.
Groups who work with low-income groups have seen a rise in requests for food rations. At the same time, food ration distributions, typically done through collection points at social service agencies and HDB void decks, have been thrown into uncertainty with new restrictions on gatherings and anxiety about face-to-face interactions.
Housing: space, privacy, safety, security
Our appreciation of housing and, in particular, living space, will not be the same again after this. Public health directives for people to stay home and avoid contact across households raises the question of whether home is equally safe for everyone. They put under the spotlight overcrowded living conditions in the public rental housing system, where even large families are housed in small two-room flats, unrelated elderly tenants are required to share one-room flats with no bedrooms, and two households are accommodated in each three-room flat in the Interim Rental Housing scheme. Social workers as well as medical practitioners working in rental housing neighbourhoods have long observed that sickness tends to spread more easily among the children of large families who live in small flats.
Living in close quarters, intensified in this time of business and school closures, also increases friction and conflict. Domestic violence is on the rise. Families already struggling with rental and other arrears will find their debt burdens worsened by this crisis.
One pressing concern is how much of this impact will translate into homelessness. One outreach group has issued a call for individuals and organisations to offer temporary shelter, because of fears that homelessness shelters may be full.
In our ongoing research on basic needs for households with children, we conducted focus group discussions with parents. Discussions about education needs were often the most energetic part of the sessions, as parents expressed strongly that education is of highest priority. Participants told us that tuition is a basic need in Singapore today, because many if not most children need tuition to keep up in school. They openly voiced doubts that ‘every school is a good school’ and talked knowledgeably about the different types of tuition services at different price points and quality.
This week, as schools close and learning moves online, inequalities have surfaced in new forms. Efforts to bridge the digital divide through the distribution of laptops and ensuring internet access is ongoing. But the divide extends beyond devices: the sudden shift to home-based learning (HBL) aggravates an already unlevel playing field, in terms of how children’s educational as well as leisure needs are supported at home, and how parents (especially women) negotiate work-life conflicts and the increased caregiving needs presented by HBL.
In fulfilling the need for social participation–which our research shows is a basic need for human wellbeing–the new conditions in which we all find ourselves means we all take a hit. Yet, where some may find alternatives in Netflix and Zoom gatherings, others will find this need especially difficult to meet.
The focus groups with older people in our first study alert us to the losses some groups will face. Older people talked about the importance of keeping in touch with family members over meals or festivities. They spoke of habits such as meeting friends at the coffee-shop; stopping for a drink and a chat at the hawker centre after shopping at the market; visiting the public library; attending courses at the community club; and travelling with family or friends to countries in the region. These were important for allowing them to feel a sense of belonging in society. Such activities have now been suspended. With friends and family also forbidden to visit, this will be an especially trying time for older members of society who live on their own.
During this research, we have often been reminded that while ordinary Singaporeans can come to consensus about a baseline below which no one should fall, many in our society do indeed fail to meet those basic standards of living.
In this time of a crisis that ostensibly affects every person in society, we must continually pay attention to the ways in which it affects different groups unequally, particularly when it comes to the meeting of basic needs.
In light of the new social distancing measures announced by the government and the recent increase in cases of COVID-19, our team is temporarily suspending all focus groups.
We are very grateful for the interest shown to date by potential participants in our research. Those interested are still welcome to register. We will get in touch when we re-start the groups. Thank you for your patience and support.
The MRSS signals a continuation in the prevailing thinking: that retirement income should come mainly from individual savings. The design of the scheme reflects an implicit diagnosis that CPF payouts are inadequate because people have the means but are choosing to save or spend their money in other ways than retirement planning.
In fact the challenges go much further than that.
For older people who are lifetime low-wage workers, there will be no spare resources for voluntary CPF savings and so no opportunity to benefit from the MRSS. Instead, they face a stark choice between planning for retirement and meeting current basic needs like housing, healthcare and food.
A basic standard of living in Singapore is about, but more than just, housing, food, and clothing. It is about having opportunities to education, employment, and work-life balance, as well as access to healthcare. It enables a sense of belonging, respect, security, and independence. It also includes choices to participate in social activities, and the freedom to engage in one’s cultural and religious practices.‘ – Definition of a basic standard of living, arrived at through consensual discussion among MIS research participants (see report findings)
In defining a basic standard of living, our research participants did not dwell on certain ‘survival’ needs–housing, food, and clothing. The definition merely mentions these briefly, before focusing on other aspects of human needs, precisely because they are seen as bare survival needs and presumed to be universally met in Singapore today.
The lack of food, in the context of a wealthy city-state, implies a very high level of deprivation: a person who is unable to meet food needs is likely also unable to access other things that our research participants see as basic and necessary for living in contemporary Singapore.
Consequently, the recent CNA two-part series highlighting food insecurity, drawing on a report by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, is extremely troubling. An alarming number of charities and volunteers have identified food deprivation as a gap they are trying to plug.
What is “enough” in meeting food needs?
Over a decade ago, in Parliament, MP Lily Neo questioned Minister Vivian Balakrishnan about public assistance (PA) for the most vulnerable. Pressed on the insufficiency of PA to ensure “just three meals a day as an entitlement”, the Minister famously countered, “How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?” This response implied strongly that people are just unreasonably choosy and that everyone does have enough to “live with dignity” in Singapore. (download full exchange here)
Underlying the MIS project is this idea: “What is enough?” is an important question to answer empirically rather than through mere belief or ideology.
Anyone looking to ensure that people are meeting their needs—whether from the state or civil society—should try to answer this question with data. People with very limited income will first try to eat before allocating money elsewhere; thus, failure to eat enough likely signals failure to access other needs. The food insecurity situation among some people in our country therefore alerts us to the likely existence of many other unmet needs.
So, again, what is enough when it comes to food?
Details of food items, menus, and prices can be found in our report. Here, a few significant features to highlight:
The total food budget for single elderly households comes up to S$92.07 per week, and that for coupled elderly households is S$189.77. This represents 29% and 35% of the weekly household budgets respectively. Food accounts for the largest share of the household budget.
While the bulk of the food budget reflects an expectation of eating in, it does include some provision for eating out. Eating out primarily means hawker centres and coffee-shops, with occasional outings to restaurants. For the single elderly households, there are two days per week of eating out for breakfast, and three days per week of eating out for lunch and dinner. The elderly couples eat out twice a week for all meals.
The food budgets combine participants’ views with dieticians’ input in an iterative back-and-forth process. Across the groups, participants frequently mentioned “healthy” and “unhealthy” options. While they were aware of the health implications of food intake, the food options they suggested also reflected that choice and enjoyment are important. They acknowledged that meals sold outside tend to be less healthy, but also said that eating out is cheap, convenient, and a way to meet friends (enabling social belonging and connection).
We are currently conducting research to understand basic needs for households with younger persons. Their specific food needs will certainly be slightly different. Infants and toddlers need milk and some solid foods; kids in secondary school may have needs for food relating to their extra-curricular activities and more time spent with friends away from home; and working parents have an entire set of constraints when it comes to cooking versus eating out, as well as meeting the needs of multiple children who have different preferences.
When determining what is enough, apart from specific menus and budgets, these are our key findings:
What is enough is partly about meeting dietary requirements and partly about other personal and social needs.
Dietary requirements change with age and activity, and are also variant due to health conditions.
In order to achieve and maintain good health, food needs to not only be filling but also nutritious. This is not just dieticians’ view but also what participants see as a basic standard of living in Singapore today. Another way of appreciating this insight is to say that participants saw food as a need which is both immediate and recurring, but also long-term in that it meets needs for health and wellbeing.
Significantly, in Singapore today, food is imbued with extraordinary personal significance and social meaning. This was strongly demonstrated by our participants’ discussion of actual food items and eating patterns, and the enthusiasm and joy they brought to discussing food. The way people eat–what, where, and with whom–matters. Humans have needs for choice and autonomy, and these are met when they can buy the food they want when they want it. We have needs for variation and pleasure, and that’s why our participants insist that food items must change; where people eat must also vary in a given day, week, and month. Humans have needs for social participation; in the Singapore context, such needs are met when we catch up with our friends at hawker centres, or gather to celebrate special occasions in restaurants with our families.
Given what we have found, it is a very profound deprivation to be deprived of food–not just food as filling stomachs, but also the purchase and consumption of food as an act of autonomy, and the eating and enjoyment of food as an act of social participation.
The CNA and Lien Centre reports indicate a range in the people who face food scarcity. Some are old but others young, some immobile but many mobile, some with families and others single, some unable to work and others working. What they have in common, regardless of these other variations, is income inadequacy. This, in our view, should be the focus of solutions.
We have learnt through our research that needs encompass not just material things themselves, but also how they are accessed. Choice, autonomy, independence, social participation–these too are basic needs. To live a dignified life, we have to care not just about eating, but how we eat, where, with whom, and on whose terms. In a small city such as Singapore, where food can be bought everywhere, most people are able to physically reach places where food is sold. The meeting of food needs, then, is primarily about income. It may not need to entail coordination and delivery to the extent that charities now carry out. Low wages need to be raised, wages for caregivers needs to be considered, unconditional basic income needs to be seriously discussed.
In a city as wealthy as Singapore, food needs can and should be universally met.
Our first MIS report focused on elderly households, but the question of how much income is needed to meet a basic standard of living applies to other types of households too! If you fit one of the categories below, please consider taking part in the study. Participants will also receive supermarket vouchers. To sign up, click here.
When the lowest income households have higher expenditure than income, what does this imply about inequality and unmet needs? How do we put trends of mobile phone and aircon ownership in perspective? Ng Kok Hoe and Teo You Yenn offer insight into the latest household income and expenditure data.
What do these observations imply about whether everyone in Singapore can meet their basic needs? What do they tell us about inequality?
Are needs going unmet?
The most significant issue to confront is whether people in the lowest income quintile group have sufficient income to meet their basic needs, as this has long-term consequences for their well-being.
In ongoing research, one of us has found a strong social norm–present in families of all income levels–to spend “within means,” and a strong desire to save. This helps to explain why most households have lower expenditure than income. This norm is shared by those who earn among the lowest 20%; indeed earlier research (Teo You Yenn) has found that people with low incomes are careful about spending. They already forego spending on certain things that higher-income people take for granted as basic needs, with negative long-term consequences—buying cheaper, less nutritious food; delaying seeing doctors; cheaper and less tuition for kids.
While attention is sometimes drawn to items like the mobile phone, they do not necessarily make a huge difference to expenditure. In 2017/18, spending on mobile phone services made up just 3% of the monthly expenditure of households in the lowest income quintile group. Instead, necessities like food and transport continue to be the largest items. Compared to the previous Household Expenditure Survey in 2012/13, it is healthcare spending that has increased the most for these low-income households, from 7% to 10% of total expenditure.
The proportion of actual monthly spending for social and recreational purposes generally falls below what–according to elderly participants in our research on minimum income standards–is necessary to allow a sense of belonging, social participation, and engagement in cultural practices. The lowest-income households spend the least in this area, which raises concerns about their inclusion as members of society.
Unequal capacities to save
Expenditure outpacing income also implies insufficient capacity to save and plan for the future, with long-term negative consequences for meeting needs during old age. If there are inequalities in the capacity to save and plan, a social welfare system which ties outcomes to this capacity will tend to reproduce inequality in other areas. In Singapore, for instance, access to retirement security is underpinned by individual savings, access to housing by individual wealth accumulation, and quality of children’s education by individual investment. In other words, inequalities in income translates to unequal access to certain public goods.
An incapacity to save also means that families which are otherwise generally stable can be easily thrown into crisis by unforeseen occurrences such as an illness, accident, job loss, or the arrival of a child who has special needs. This also raises the question of whether our policies can adequately buffer lower income families against these ordinary and yet unpredictable risks.
What counts as needs?
Another major issue raised by the expenditure data is the definition of basic needs. It is important for us to understand what are considered basic needs by members of society at a particular point in time, and the extent to which these needs are being met, especially among lower-income groups. The income and expenditure data should be compared with Minimum Income Standards (MIS) or other similar benchmarks of what people need for a basic standard of living in Singapore today. While we have carried out MIS research in relation to older households, we intend to replicate this research across other household types.
Expenditure data alone may give us insights into what is most commonly owned or purchased, but it may fail to account for needs which people currently forego. What people need must not be conflated with what people can afford. Moreover, unlike qualitative research using the MIS method, expenditure data alone cannot reflect and take into account the rationales and social norms that explain why something is a need.
Needs evolve with society
What constitutes ‘needs’ are context specific, and can and do change over time.
We must recognise that as a society’s living standards and lifestyles change, so too do the requirements for belonging and participating in society. Something which was not a basic need before may have become a basic need now because not having that item would make it difficult for someone to participate in society.
In our research into basic needs for older households, for example, our respondents reminded us that they did not consider mobile phones and internet access to be basic ten years ago. But in Singapore today, one would struggle to function in society without them. Many day-to-day transactions and interactions presume that people have internet access. On the other hand, newspaper subscriptions are no longer considered needs. Items that used to be part of belonging and participation in society may cease to be necessary as society changes. To keep pace with these changes, it is important that research into the definition of needs is updated on a regular basis.
It is clear that income is a key means of meeting needs and thus a central determinant of well-being in Singapore today. To ensure everyone has sufficient income to meet basic needs, as a society, we need to review wages and redistribution–taxing and spending. To peg such policies to clear standards of adequate well-being, we also need a well-defined and regularly updated baseline of basic needs.
We have a new opinion piece (paywall) in The Straits Times today, by research team members Neo Yu Wei and Ad Maulod, examining how the definition of a basic standard in living developed by participants in our research reflected Singaporeans’ values relating to cultural diversity–and how they translated this practically and concretely into the household budgets that emerged:
Researchers in other countries have conducted similar research on minimum household budget standards, such as in the United Kingdom, Japan, Mexico, South Africa. However, only in Singapore did participants include the choice and freedom to engage in “one’s cultural and religious practices” as a key basic need. This underlies the importance participants place on being a member of their cultural community.
In discussing how to translate this definition into everyday practice, participants who come from diverse ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds, took time to hear different views expressed, acknowledge the importance of different practices, before finding ways to agree on common and shared needs for every older person in Singapore.
A key aim in the MIS approach is to translate needs which may initially appear abstract — needs for independence or connection, for example — into concrete things which can be clearly and explicitly budgeted for.
The oft-repeated cliché that “money cannot buy happiness” may well be true in its most literal and simplistic conception, but our participants’ deliberations demonstrated that there are many concrete and material things — which require specific sums of money — that are needed to meet people’s needs.
While these material things cannot guarantee anything as subjective as “happiness”, they are deeply connected to well-being and important preconditions to happiness.