Part of the new Lingnanian Opinion Column for HKET. Please follow link for full article.
Article 3 of the United Nations’ Convention of the Rights of the Child states that “in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”. Few would disagree that childhood experiences have a profound affect not only on children’s current lives but also on their future opportunities and prospects. If some children in society systematically fall behind their peers in the core areas of their well-being, this should be regarded as a situation in need of urgent attention even if things are going well in other respects of economic and social development.
Indeed, writers across the Social Sciences have suggested that inequalities are much harder to justify if they prevent children from having a fair start to life. For instance, the Heckman equation, named after the popular American Economist and Nobel Laureate, suggests that public investment in educational resources for very young children aged below five promises particular ‘good value-for-money’ as it contributes positively to their early development of cognitive and social skills. If sustained by means of high quality education through to adulthood, such investments promise substantial gains to the economy by creating a more productive and valuable labour force.
Focussing on the positive freedoms of children and how their rights are being upheld in different contexts, the work of another Nobel Laureate and political philospher, Amartya Sen, argues that children’s chances to have a healthy start to live and access to high quality education to a large extent determines their capability to actively choose the lives that they have reason to value during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Indeed, since the economic circumstances to which children are born into are beyond their own control, merit-based justifications of inequality and ‘just deserts’ are less likely to convince if we are considering children rather than adults.
In a recent discussion paper for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), Stewart (2013:13) suggested “the societal consequences of inequality are very different if particular individuals move in and out of poverty or riches than if everyone stays in the same place in the hierarchy”. In other words, persistent inequalities between the most advantaged and disadvantaged should be perceived as a case of ‘inequity’, i.e. a matter of fairness and social justice that governments and related stakeholders have a responsibility to address. This is particularly the case as far as children are concerned.
Although there is a strong economic and moral case to prioritise children in the distribution of scarce resources in society, the harsh reality is that few rich economies have so far managed to create truly “fair” circumstances for all its children. As such, international evidence has shown that students from the most disadvantaged families still tend to be more likely to be among the worst academic achievers than their peers from families with the highest socio-economic status.
Despite some positive overall gains, there remains a stubborn social gradient in healthy eating and physical activity in many rich countries meaning that children from the least advantaged family backgrounds continue to consume significantly less fruit and vegetables, and exercise less frequently for a total of at least 60 minutes per day as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Not least, the least affluent children across rich economies are more likely to have very low life satisfaction, which is associated with multiple risk behaviors including bullying and being bullied at school.
There is a dearth of systematic empirical evidence that would allow us to very easily the extent to which the Hong Kong government manages to uphold the rights of its children compared with other rich economies around the globe. However, thanks to the Policy Innovation Co-ordination Office (“PICO”) (formerly the Central Policy Unit), which recently supported a cross-university research project on the Trends and Implications of Poverty and Social Disadvantages in Hong Kong, researchers are now in a position where they can begin to piece together the complex puzzle of child opportunities and prospects in Hong Kong.
Although preliminary, the data collected as part of this research suggests that children in Hong Kong have a much higher chance to be among the least affluent if they grow up in a single parent household or in a household with no working adult. This finding may not be surprising, but speaks to the inability of the social safety net in Hong Kong to protect children from less traditional households from falling way behind their peers in terms of their income.
The findings also suggest that rather than the level of education or combined salaries, it is the parents’ material deprivation that determines the likelihood for children to lack access to basic necessities, such as e.g. a personal computer or a place to study in the home. In other words, being born in disadvantaged circumstances still acts as a barrier for some children in Hong Kong to live the same life as commonly perceived as ‘normal’ by a majority of Hong Kong children.
Previous research has shown that the parents and grandparents in less affluent households in Hong Kong make considerable sacrifices to facilitate the best possible start in life for their children. However, what these findings stress is that there is a threshold below which these adult family members are no longer able to shield their children from the negative consequences of severe material adult deprivation in the households they grow up in.
Finally, there also appears to be a link between the material and mental well-being of children in Hong Kong. As such, it is a lack of access to basic child necessities that is more likely to cause very low life satisfaction and a disproportionately high frequency of mental health complaints, such as having problems sleeping, worrying a lot, having stomach and back pain, among Hong Kong children. These findings remain after controlling for their self-perceived family relationships, their connectedness to teachers, and even their experience of being bullied at school.
Much more work needs to be done to fully understand the various ways in which the determinants of well-being of the most disadvantaged children are interconnected. However, what appears clear is that family background continues to play a considerable role for the life chances of at least some of Hong Kong’s children. As long as the future opportunities and prospects of those Hong Kong children continue to be determined by the ‘lottery of birth’, it is difficult to argue that Hong Kong’s economic and social policies rise to the lofty ideals of the United Nations’ Convention of the Rights of the Child.
In order to more successfully meet the needs of all its children, the Hong Kong government is well-advised to subscribe to the policy advice of international bodies, which have argued not only that governments should strive to promote healthy lifestyles and improve the educational achievements of the most disadvantaged children, but also that the incomes of the poorest households with children need to be better protected. This may not be a popular view given recent statements by the Financial Secretary (Hong Kong), which were meant to dampen the hopes for more government profligacy in social protection moving forward.
Given the dearth of comparative data in Hong Kong, it is also important to invest in further systematic research to enable better monitoring and measurement of child well-being in Hong Kong and its neighboring societies in the Big Bay area. Data sets that track the development of Hong Kong children across multiple dimensions of child well-being and across different life stages promise to be particularly valuable for generations of local policy makers and other stakeholders. While there are very good reasons for the Hong Kong government’s recent emphasis on STEAM subjects and industries, it is equally important to recognize the continued role of the Social Sciences in better understanding and shaping the life chances of her children as the future pillars of society.
 Stewart, F. (2013) Approaches Towards Inequality and Inequity: Concepts, Measures and Policies. UNICEF Office of Research Discussion Paper. Florence, Italy: UNICEF Office of Research.
 UNICEF (2016) Fairness For Children: A League Table Of Inequality In Child Well-Being In Rich Countries. Innocenti Report Card 13. UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Florence.