What are the Odds?

A long forgotten British trade unionist once made a remark that has stayed with me for over half a century.

"Five per cent unemployment doesn't mean that each of us is five per cent unemployed: it means that tens of thousands of people who want to work are 100% unemployed."

I was mulling over the simple – yet often overlooked – truth of that statement, the other day when pondering the extent of poverty in our community and what it means to ordinary peoples’ lives.

Figures had just been released suggesting that as many as one person in seven in Hong Kong lives below the poverty line. Some families were cutting back to two meals a day instead of three, parents were denying themselves in order to make sure their children had a bigger share of what food was available, but many children were still going to bed hungry.

One in seven does not mean that each of us is fasting for one day per week and eating well the other six days. It means that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people, including children, are going to bed hungry every night.

We don’t need to spend too long arguing over exactly how many people that is. It is not unknown for pressure groups to exaggerate the extent of problems they are addressing in order to fight for more resources. And poverty is after all to some extent a relative phenomenon: when I was growing up, only the well off could afford a telephone, which was always fixed line (there were no mobile phones in those days) and calls were kept to a minimum in terms of number and duration to limit the expense. Nowadays anyone without his own mobile could reasonably be considered deprived.

But even stripping these two factors out, the fact remains that a substantial number of our fellow citizens, running into the hundreds of thousands, are hungry while living in a city of plenty and where a lot of people pay a small fortune for gym memberships and diet plans in order to fight flab. It is an intolerable situation and one the next Chief Executive is going to have to address.

For months now the newspapers have been writing about the haves and the have-nots, an old story of course but now with a new sobriquet "99:1". The 99 is the ordinary working stiff and the 1 is the super wealthy. The share of the economy grabbed by the 1 has been growing over the past 20 years, it is reported, while that of the 99 has declined, to the extent that most of us are no better off now than we were in 1990 while a tiny minority has scooped up all the goodies.

Emotive stuff, and undoubtedly an exaggeration, but with a kernel of truth that is not going to go away any time soon. Worldwide, that sentiment has spawned the "Occupy Wall Street" movement imitated in many places including on a very minor scale Hong Kong.

For the last 50 years or more Hong Kong people have been remarkably tolerant of the wide divergences in relative wealth. We have just about the highest Gini coefficient in the world but we have fortunately been largely free of the politics of envy. Up to now.

But as our community moves unsteadily towards universal suffrage, the issue is going to be on the agenda. It is encouraging that both of the leading candidates for Chief Executive, C Y Leung and Henry Tang, have felt a need to address grass roots concerns in their campaign notwithstanding that they are both from the 1 % themselves, and that the actual voting this time around will be done by a small number of the privileged.

Having come from a humble background himself, Mr Leung is well placed to understand the issues. Having chaired the Poverty Commission for two and a half years while Financial Secretary, Mr Tang should also have a fair grasp of the matter at least in the abstract.

As for me, I have never been a communist, and I am no longer the socialist of my youth. But I wanted the ghost of Frank Cousins to know that at least one person remembers the remark he once made and thought it worthy of a reference in his newspaper column.