Hard times call for more precise urban poor statistics

By Sofea Azahar


NEARLY everyone is feeling the pinch stemmed from the pandemic but the intensity of suffering and difficulties varies across individuals. That explains why government assistance has become more targeted to the needy ones as we continue to weather through the crisis such as the urban poor.

So long as the economic uncertainty remains, this effort should be persistent but data accuracy needs to be given serious attention to ensure no one is excluded from the assistance that they deserve and need.

The difficulties experienced by the rakyat are more evident as most states are currently under blanket movement control order (MCO 2.0) due to local COVID-19 cases remaining at four-digit.

Although the impact is said not to be as severe as in MCO 1.0 because more economic sectors are allowed to operate, some businesses can’t seem to escape from being negatively impacted due to the need to adhere to the standard operating procedures (SOPs) such as physical distancing and many have started working from home, and inter-state travel has been banned.

For instance, it was recently mentioned by the Federal Territories Minister Annuar Musa and reported by Bernama that there are more than 30,000 households out of the total population in the capital that have incomes below the poverty line of RM2,208, according to estimates.

If we look at the mean poverty line income in Kuala Lumpur only, it is slightly higher at RM2,216. Based on the revised income group classification by DOSM, in Kuala Lumpur only, households earning below RM9,150 are already considered B40.

Annuar Musa also added that this group of households cannot even afford the necessities such as food, clothes and shelter.

The inability to afford these daily needs for the household, the prolonged financial anxiety and the need to adapt to the new environment whereby almost everything goes online would lead to other consequences which are already happening around us such as mental health, particularly for those who are underprivileged.

Nonetheless, the exact number of families which fall under this category cannot be confirmed as various agencies are currently managing the matter like Department of Social Welfare, Federal Territories Islamic Religious Council and Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department.

The dire situation could be explained given the higher cost of living that need to be shouldered by the people living in cities and it has been worsened by the pandemic.

This specific situation can be supported by the findings of EMIR Research Quarterly Poll for fourth quarter of 2020 (4Q20) which have just been released and reflective of the ground reality based the responses from 1,976 respondents coming from all states in the country.

Based on the poll, 76% of respondents experienced negative impact in terms of jobs whilst 74% agreed that economy was badly impacted due to COVID-19 pandemic. To go into more details, findings have also shown that the impact was felt more by the urban respondents.  

In terms of the direction of the country and economy, majority of respondents remain unsure when they are asked whether the country is on the right track (48% vs 54% in 3Q20) and whether the economy is on a strong footing (45% vs 53% in 3Q20).

Additionally, to support the evidence that it appears harder in economic perspective for the urbanites, the poll was joined by a larger share of urban respondents (70.5%) which is not too far from the real population of urban and rural in Malaysia – 76.6% and 23.4% respectively in 2019, according to the World Bank data.

These statistics call for urgent need to lend a helping hand to the vulnerable and low-income earners living in the cities as their low wages do not go together with the continuous rise in cost of living.

Therefore, the recent launch of 5MY Programme (Program Kemiskinan Bandar) that was introduced last year and implemented by Federal Territories Ministry is welcomed in its effort to eradicate urban poverty through five initiatives – employment through MYJob@Wilayah, schooling (MYSchoolBus@Wilayah), basic necessities (MYGrocer@Wilayah), food supplies (MYFood@Wilayah) and medicine (MYMedic@Wilayah).

These initiatives are also accompanied by a new additional initiative known as MYBeras@Wilayah whereby over 5,000 bags of rice will be distributed to the urban poor per week, an increase from 3,000 previously.

As a yardstick for these initiatives, it was stated by the Prime Minister that over 35,000 people and head of households, as well as residents of 331 low-cost housing areas in Kuala Lumpur have benefitted from the 5MY programme last year.

MYJob@Wilayah has provided 3,259 employment opportunities last year and hopefully, this initiative would help a greater number of urban poor in a more sustainable way. To do this, job opportunities should be coupled with appropriate wages at least to afford basic needs (above minimum wage level).

Perhaps to help them demand for high wages, the urban poor needs to be educated or equipped with relevant skills that is required by the sectors they are involved in.

Another important area to improve on further is the accuracy of data for urban poor population not only in Kuala Lumpur but also in other states since it was mentioned by the Minister that an exact number of families could not be confirmed due to the involvement of several agencies.

There should be a single platform whereby each participating agency can consistently share and update their statistics on the urban poor to ensure there are no overlaps and, sufficient and appropriate assistance will reach those who are in need. – Feb 2, 2021


Sofea Azahar is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, a think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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