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The Big Read in short: Households that get by on a shoestring

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how the bottom 20 per cent of households in Singapore get by, given that their average monthly expenditure has persistently outstripped their income based on government data. This is a shortened version of the full feature.

A one-room rental flat of a low-income family in Singapore.

A one-room rental flat of a low-income family in Singapore.

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Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how the bottom 20 per cent of households in Singapore get by, given that their average monthly expenditure has persistently outstripped their income based on government data. This is a shortened version of the full feature, which can be found here

SINGAPORE —  On average, the bottom 20 per cent of households are each spending S$2,570 a month while having a monthly income of S$2,235, which include regular government transfers such as Workfare. This means a shortfall of S$335 on average each month.

This was the only income group whose income was lower than their expenditure, according to the latest Household Expenditure Survey conducted from October 2017 to September last year. Nevertheless, such a situation has persisted for at least the past decade. 

The average monthly shortfall for this group was S$266 in 2012/2013, and S$321 in 2007/2008, based on data from the Department of Statistics. 

To help these households cope, government transfers including ad hoc ones, as well as rebates or subsidies, are disbursed to the families and individuals. 

In response to TODAY’s queries, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) noted that a number of households in the bottom 20 per cent “may be semi-retired households who are able to tap on other sources of income” — for example, savings, allowances from children, and Central Provident Fund payouts — for their household expenses. 

The ministry added that in its Household Income Trends report last year, Singstat noted that about 45 per cent of resident employed households in the bottom decile were headed by persons aged 60 years and above, while some owned a car, employed a maid, or lived in private property. 

Be that as it may, Members of Parliament (MPs), sociologists as well as social service agencies TODAY spoke to stressed the need to pay attention to the situation — notwithstanding the fact that an array of assistance schemes are provided by the Government and the community. 

They noted that it remains a challenge for the Government and the community to reach out to low-income households who may be unaware of the array of available schemes or unwilling to seek help.  There is also scope to help these individuals and families manage their limited finances, they added. 


TODAY’s interviews with several low-income households found that their main expenses vary according to individual and family circumstances. For example, those with young children find themselves spending a chunk of their income on basic necessities such as diapers and formula milk. 

Couples who are childless or who are receiving no financial support from their children find themselves having to cope with medical bills, for instance. These may not necessarily be one-off large expenditures for a procedure for example, but the little things add up: Every trip to the polyclinic or general practitioner for relatively minor ailments means money spent on transport and medicine, and a loss of income for the next few days if they are too ill to work. 

Then, there are also the indulgences which households with better means hardly think twice about spending money on: For some, it could be simply buying a fish — a luxury for some of these families — to cook at home, as one 72-year-old retiree told TODAY. For others, it could be buying cigarettes or beer.   

Apart from turning to government handouts, some resort to borrowing from friends and relatives — and end up in a spiral of debt. 

The MSF, which has a network of 24 Social Service Offices (SSOs) in every Housing and Development Board estate, also partners other agencies and organisations to bolster support for low-income families.

Nevertheless, Jurong Group Representation Constituency (GRC) MP Rahayu Mahzam noted the difficulties faced by individuals mired in long-standing debts. Help in this area is limited for now since SSOs cannot help to repay loans, said Ms Rahayu, who is also the deputy chairperson of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Social and Family Development. 

While there is no immediate solution, the Government will look into these problems to see how they can be better addressed, she added. 


An MSF spokesperson said the Government reviews schemes for low-income families regularly to ensure that their coverage and criteria are responsive to the needs of beneficiaries. 

The ministry takes into account changes in the prices of essential items and the changing lifestyles of Singaporean families when making these decisions. 

“For example, telecommunications items such as broadband access and mobile subscriptions are recognised as essential needs and are factored into the ComCare assistance provided,” a ministry spokesperson added.

The MSF recently raised the monthly cash assistance for beneficiaries under the ComCare Long-Term Assistance Scheme, which provides support to individuals who are permanently out of work. From July 1, a single-person household receives an additional S$100 each month, from S$500 to S$600. 

It also has a ComCare Short-to-Medium Term Assistance scheme, which provides financial support to those who are temporarily out of work, between jobs or receive low wages. 

While there are income caps to qualify for support, MSF noted that the SSOs are allowed flexibility if they find that a household who earns above the cap needs help. 

For example, the SSOs may refer those who are looking for jobs or earning low wages to government agency Workforce Singapore or the labour movement’s Employment and Employability Institute for help, MSF said.

Meanwhile, charities and self-help groups said they have also stepped up support or widen their services to cater to shifting needs.

For example, with effect from January, the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) will relax its income-eligibility criteria to allow more people to benefit from its programmes. 

Similarly, the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) also told TODAY that it launched a slew of initiatives and revised subsidy-eligibility criteria across all its programmes last year. 


Expenditures of lower-income households outpacing their incomes is a sign that their well-being is being compromised, said Associate Professor Teo You Yenn, head of sociology at the Nanyang Technological University.

She added that that this trend would imply that these families are unable to save, and this has negative long-term effects in old age. It also puts stable households at risk of a crisis when there is illness, accident, job loss or a child with special needs, she said.

Dr Mathew Mathews, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, said that while low-income households can avail themselves of subsidies, family circumstances may render these ineffective. 

“While (government subsidies) are substantial measures, the cost of living in Singapore is high,” he said. 

He added: “Some families will have greater challenges, depending on the types of issues they have to deal with, such as chronic illnesses. While there might be subsidies for healthcare, there might be many out-of-pocket expenses that can be rather substantial.” 

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser of the National University of Singapore cautioned that if left unchecked, the situation could likely result in these families being entrenched in poverty.  

These households should be supported in finding employment, and the Government and charity sector have a part to play, he said. “It’s not just about money, but about finding employment and helping the children in terms of educational support,” he added.

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