WE may be 20 years into the 21st century, but now and then we read about Malaysian families living on one meal a day. Or even less.
Some have jobs but they and their families live in poverty. Numbers are hard to come by but there are working poor in this land of ours. This is anecdotal evidence, no doubt, but such reality on the ground does question the official poverty figure.
In 2016, it was said to be 0.4 per cent or 25,000 households, with an average of 4.1 person per household. Encouragingly, the poverty line has gone multi-dimensional to give a true picture of how many are poor.
After all, income alone won’t tell the true story. It never does, here or elsewhere. Shelter, food and clothing will.
But how do we tackle poverty? Obviously, there is no one sure way. It must be tackled at many levels. At the national level, economic growth helps.
When a country grows, as Malaysia has done, its people grow richer. In the 1970s, Malaysia was labelled — as categorisers are wont to do — a poor rural nation.
After all, our gross national income per capita was hovering around RM200. Today, we are upper middle-income country on the cusp of being a high-income one. Yet, some people get left behind despite the growth.
We may reach the growth target by 2030. In the same year, another goal needs to be reached: zero poverty set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No. 1. Malaysia, which is a party to UN’s SDG Agenda 2030, must get its poverty to zero, whatever the misery level is now.
Which means there are other levers that need to be pulled to ensure prosperity reaches all.
If The Economist newspaper is right, there may be a Chinese lesson here for us to emulate. China, it is said, took 680 million people above the poverty line between 1981 and 2010, reducing its extreme-poverty rate from 84 per cent in 1980, to 10 per cent in 2013.
True, China’s growth is one reason — it has had an average gross domestic product of 9.9 per cent between 1979 and 2010. But it is not the only reason.
This we may want to explore. Managing poverty is not just the central government’s job. If it were so, things will fall badly apart. The centre can hold only so much. Others in the governance chain — members of parliament, state assemblymen, state officers, district officers and every public officer in between — must help get the people within their ken out of the wretchedness of poverty.
For these are the areas they govern. Local knowledge is a lethal weapon against poverty. If the local “governors” do their job well, we may not need a UN expert to tell us what our poverty line income is.
The destitute, too, have a responsibility to get out of poverty as quickly as they can. But they require our help in this. Understandably so.
We need to teach them a trade or two. And financial literacy too. Enabling the poor to enter the market so armed will keep them at a safe distance from destitution.
And the working poor, from one pay cheque to another. Thus must we wage the war against poverty.