Mind the Gap: New Possibilities in Social Assistance

This commentary was published in Mothership.sg on 23 March 2021 titled “Why do some S’pore families choose to ‘struggle’ rather than get help from social services?”. Here’s the edited and published article https://mothership.sg/2021/03/mind-the-gap-commentary-anthea-ong/

https://mothership.sg/2021/03/mind-the-gap-commentary-anthea-ong/

Below is the original draft:

“I don’t know how long it’ll take for me to recover,” said Nancy*, a 22 year old Singaporean.

Like many young, self-employed single mothers, 2020 was tough for her. While she is scraping by with some help, jobs have dried up and her application for the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) application was unsuccessful. “The future seems very uncertain at this point,” she added.

COVID-19 hit us last year like a perfect storm. At the onset of circuit breaker measures, the distressing stories of some rental flat families — up to one in five families we spoke to, at one point, couldn’t even afford meals. These were too many to ignore.

Such a situation likely arose from income loss as well as growing arrears and expenses despite at least a quarter of this group seeking help from state agencies.

So in mid-April last year, four social service agencies such as Beyond Social Services, Association for Women for Action and Research (AWARE) and REACH Community Services as well as four ground-up groups including A Good Space, ReadAble and Cassia Resettlement Team came together to form the Mind The Gap (MTG) Collective.

Our focus was to quickly pull together S$50,000 to help these families tide over the circuit breaker period especially those with a sudden loss of jobs and income, and minimal savings. We managed to raise S$1.12 million, allowing us to extend monthly support to more than 750 individuals and families from May to December, including two in Pulau Ubin, ranging from one to six months.

This work, while deeply satisfying, poses many difficult questions for us to grapple with. Why did some of these families fall through the gaps? What made some families choose to struggle with food insecurity and arrears rather than seek assistance from social service organisations (SSOs)? What does the suffering of low-income households in the pandemic tell us about what we are not doing in “normal” times?

Difficulties with the system keep them out of the system

While some of the families we supported have had positive experiences receiving support from ComCare and COVID-19 related schemes, others faced obstacles and did not approach the system because of stringent criteria and difficult experiences in the past with the process.

Families recounted the feeling of being interrogated on every line of their bank statement. “They always ask me why I didn’t do this or that, never asked about how I was coping or about my situation,” said Nadia.* A 39-year old Singaporean mother with two young children, she was brought to tears by this intensive questioning, an experience shared by several others.

For those who did seek help from the SSOs for ComCare or NTUC for SIRS (Self-employed person Income Relief Scheme), the long waiting time for the application to be processed — about four to six weeks for the ComCare fund — became a big problem for families who needed urgent cash flow.

This was where applicants found MTG very helpful — assistance could reach households as quickly as under two weeks; and for households assessed to require urgent assistance, within a few days.

Most of us do not oppose gatekeeping or means-testing to encourage self reliance and safeguard against abuses. But these concerns should be balanced against the need to protect the dignity of the poor and ensure that help reaches them in a timely and accessible manner. How do we make sure that our social security system does not keep the people it seeks to help out of the system?

Experimenting with an inclusive and trust-based system of social support

At MTG, we agreed unanimously at the start to avoid excessive means testing to assess suitable applicants especially given that we are in a pandemic and we were focused on providing immediate to short-term assistance.

To qualify, individuals and families had to be impacted by COVID-19 financially or in other areas of their lives. We designed the application process to be based on trust so that there was no need for extensive submission of supporting documents. Our means-testing approach was largely community-and-relationship-driven.

Aside from the eight of us in the main Collective, 20 other ground-ups and social enterprises like SG Assist, Merpati Kaki and The T Project helped provide us with the incisive knowledge of needs and trust capital for us to be extensive in our reach and responsive to individuals and families in distress.

Other than food and utilities, many applicants could also clear parts of their arrears which reduced anxiety and stress and gave them the time and space to look for employment.

As the economy gradually reopened, a handful of applicants have in fact found jobs.

“[Before COVID-19], I couldn’t save much. But now that I have a new job, I can save more from my income, MTG support, and financial assistance,” said another MTG applicant, Sara*, 41 and a divorced mother. “Now, I can provide a bit more for my kids and may be able to finally go for my surgery.”

Another applicant, Michael*, a 39-year old Grab driver, used the MTG support to clear the remaining 40 per cent of his Medisave liabilities (he had worked hard to save for 60 per cent) so that he could be allowed to renew his Private Hire Driving Vocational License and resume his livelihood.

Re-examining the efficacy of the current model of stringency for short to medium term assistance

In a 2007 article written for the Civil Service College, Lim Xiuhui, then a Social Assistance Policy Officer with the former Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports wrote: “It is because we believe incentives towards self-reliance matter that Singapore’s social assistance policies require people to exhaust their own resources, those of their families, and those of the community, before turning to the Government for help.”

It is hard to dispute this rationale to target public resources to only those who need it. However, the difficult experiences Nancy, Nadia and many other MTG applicants encountered raise the question of whether the current code of stringency deters many from seeking help, perpetuating their state of distress and keeping them further from standing on their own two feet.

Given the changes that rapid economic growth has wrought on our society, we should also question if family and community structures today are as strong and reliable as they were when this social security model — with the Government as the last resort — was developed. Have we invested enough in low-income communities to harness their own strengths and build community assets?

Conversely, Sara’s and other MTG applicants’ stories of finding jobs and saving for the future may also provide insight into whether helping Singaporeans and residents in distress in a more dignified manner with easier and quicker access may in fact better achieve the objective of enabling long-term self-reliance.

We acknowledge that 750 applicants is a fraction of the 78,600 individuals benefiting from various ComCare schemes in 2019. The qualitative data speaks for itself, however. Adjusting the stringency of criteria certainly eased the MTG applicants’ cognitive load and had a positive impact on their sense of dignity and motivation.

Improvements to keep self-reliance and dignity intact

We can stay with the targeted and means-tested approach but we must reduce the number of hoops that applicants need to jump through and do away with the need to prove their suffering over and over again.

We should, therefore, allow auto renewals for cases clearly needing longer assistance up to 12 months instead of the current three or at best six months. It’s reasonable to review the applicant’s circumstances after 12 months of continued financial assistance. In doing so, we also reduce the administrative load on our social service agencies (SSAs) so they can focus on better supporting affected Singaporeans. Given these priorities, we may have to trade-off the luxury of deep-diving into every case to test its deservedness. Officers from the relevant government agencies could be given the power to investigate end-users who they suspect to be abusing the system.

To preserve the work ethic, the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) scheme, which is currently given automatically to low-wage Singaporean workers and self-employed persons above 35 years old based on CPF contributions and means testing, could be used as the basis for automatic qualification for all other assistance required whether in housing, childcare, education, digital access, healthcare or eldercare.

This has the benefit of keeping the narrative of work as a means towards self-reliance without the stigma and loss of dignity.

While many SSOs and Family Service Centres (FSCs) have outreach activities, these remain limited for a variety of reasons including bandwidth. This gap becomes even more salient during a crisis.

Ground-ups, social enterprises and others should be designed into the system to expand this community outreach and trust-building capacity so that no one in need is left behind, especially during a crisis.

These groups must also be supported to work with, not for, these communities to strengthen their collective assets from within. Trust built is also a natural safeguard against moral hazard.

It was not lost on us that we may all have been in this same storm but we are certainly not in the same boat. How quickly and willing we are to update and improve our social security system to support our most vulnerable will measure who we are as a society, and prepare us well for the next storm.

It is also on everyone of us to share and show up for our fellow Singaporeans in need by going deep into ourselves and finding there our illimitable ability to care, then spreading outwards in commitment to our fellow Singaporeans in need so we emerge from the storm together, and stay stronger, longer as a whole.

* Names have been changed to protect our applicants’ identities

Anthea Ong is a former Nominated Member of Parliament, Social Entrepreneur (A Good Space, Hush TeaBar, WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, SG Mental Health Matters), Leadership Coach and Author of 50 Shades of Love. Anthea initiated the Mind the Gap Collective in mid April 2020 as Chairperson of A Good Space Co-operative Ltd. www.antheaong.com