Jay is not alone. According to the research carried out by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service in 2008, 170,000 youngsters were living below the breadline. Young people aged between 15 and 24 have experienced the steepest increase in poverty rates since 2001.
Scott Tam Kin-chung, the training officer of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions Training Centre, believes many cases of youth poverty are the result of cross-generation poverty. Teenagers from poor families quit school to help family finances and end up on low wages, working long hours and in short-term jobs. They have no time for further studies, which affects their long-term opportunities.
How serious is the vicious cycle? A report by the now defunct Commission on Poverty from 2006 showed 247,800 children aged up to 14 years lived in households with incomes below the average CSSA payment. Tam says it is clear these children are not competing on a level playing field with their peers. For a start, they have fewer learning resources. “While
most teenagers stick to their desktops everyday, they have no computer at their home,” he says.
Neither can they participate in other supplementary courses and activities outside school as they cannot afford transport costs. As a result, many drop out and can only get hired on short-term contracts by giant corporations. Tam says companies often employ people during peak seasons and dismiss them afterwards. He cites the case of a youngster who was hired and fired five times by the same company. “It is hard for the poor youngsters to have prospects,” he says.
Lun, 19, is one of the youths facing an uncertain future and he is taking each day as it comes. Currently, he has two part-time jobs. From Tuesdays to Thursdays he works at a community centre; and from Fridays to Sundays he works the night shift at McDonald’s. He makes $6,000 a month from his labour. This allows him to support himself without asking for money from his parents.
But alternating betweenday and night shifts is a nightmare. “I took on the jobs with the mindset that they would be temporary ones while I applied for better ones. But work is so demanding that I no longer have the time or motivation to make applications,” he says.
There is a traditional saying that “knowledge can change fate”. But for Lun, the immediate priority is to support his family as his father is due to retire soon. He left school after completing his A-levels earlier this year and has been working since then. He plans to enrol in vocational courses so he can pursue a better career, such as in the insurance or accounting sector. Lun has decided not to further his education by taking associate degree courses because he does not want to borrow money to pay for his studies. “I’d have to spend the first four tofive years of work repaying my debts,so I wouldn’t be able to save up. And it’s not like I’m going to get a good job anyway,” he says.
While Lun seems resigned to fate, some are unwilling to let poverty get in the way of their ambitions. Joan Ng Wan-mei, 18, grew up in a poor single-parent household but went on to get 3 A’s in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination. “Being poor is not an excuse. All it takes is determination,” Ng says.