What is enough: food

A 2018 report by the SMU Lien Centre for Social Innovation, and a recent two-part series by Channel News Asia, have put food insecurity in Singapore under the spotlight. Food is undeniably a basic need—and how it ties into other needs, such as those for social participation, were extensively discussed by participants in the first MIS research project. The MIS team reflects further on the implications of recent discussions.

A basic standard of living in Singapore is about, but more than just, housing, food, and clothing. It is about having opportunities to education, employment, and work-life balance, as well as access to healthcare. It enables a sense of belonging, respect, security, and independence. It also includes choices to participate in social activities, and the freedom to engage in one’s cultural and religious practices.‘ – Definition of a basic standard of living, arrived at through consensual discussion among MIS research participants (see report findings)

In defining a basic standard of living, our research participants did not dwell on certain ‘survival’ needs–housing, food, and clothing. The definition merely mentions these briefly, before focusing on other aspects of human needs, precisely because they are seen as bare survival needs and presumed to be universally met in Singapore today. 

The lack of food, in the context of a wealthy city-state, implies a very high level of deprivation: a person who is unable to meet food needs is likely also unable to access other things that our research participants see as basic and necessary for living in contemporary Singapore. 

Consequently, the recent CNA two-part series highlighting food insecurity, drawing on a report by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, is extremely troubling. An alarming number of charities and volunteers have identified food deprivation as a gap they are trying to plug.  

“What is enough?” is an important question to answer empirically rather than through mere belief or ideology. 

What is “enough” in meeting food needs? 

Over a decade ago, in Parliament, MP Lily Neo questioned Minister Vivian Balakrishnan about public assistance (PA) for the most vulnerable. Pressed on the insufficiency of PA to ensure “just three meals a day as an entitlement”, the Minister famously countered, “How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?” This response implied strongly that people are just unreasonably choosy and that everyone does have enough to “live with dignity” in Singapore. (download full exchange here)

Underlying the MIS project is this idea: “What is enough?” is an important question to answer empirically rather than through mere belief or ideology. 

Anyone looking to ensure that people are meeting their needs—whether from the state or civil society—should try to answer this question with data. People with very limited income will first try to eat before allocating money elsewhere; thus, failure to eat enough likely signals failure to access other needs. The food insecurity situation among some people in our country therefore alerts us to the likely existence of many other unmet needs. 

So, again, what is enough when it comes to food? 

Details of food items, menus, and prices can be found in our report. Here, a few significant features to highlight:

Illustration by Jolene Tan
  • The total food budget for single elderly households comes up to S$92.07 per week, and that for coupled elderly households is S$189.77. This represents 29% and 35% of the weekly household budgets respectively. Food accounts for the largest share of the household budget. 
  • While the bulk of the food budget reflects an expectation of eating in, it does include some provision for eating out. Eating out primarily means hawker centres and coffee-shops, with occasional outings to restaurants. For the single elderly households, there are two days per week of eating out for breakfast, and three days per week of eating out for lunch and dinner. The elderly couples eat out twice a week for all meals.
  • The food budgets combine participants’ views with dieticians’ input in an iterative back-and-forth process. Across the groups, participants frequently mentioned “healthy” and “unhealthy” options. While they were aware of the health implications of food intake, the food options they suggested also reflected that choice and enjoyment are important. They acknowledged that meals sold outside tend to be less healthy, but also said that eating out is cheap, convenient, and a way to meet friends (enabling social belonging and connection).

We are currently conducting research to understand basic needs for households with younger persons. Their specific food needs will certainly be slightly different. Infants and toddlers need milk and some solid foods; kids in secondary school may have needs for food relating to their extra-curricular activities and more time spent with friends away from home; and working parents have an entire set of constraints when it comes to cooking versus eating out, as well as meeting the needs of multiple children who have different preferences. 

The way people eat–what, where, and with whom–matters. Humans have needs for choice and autonomy, and these are met when they can buy the food they want when they want it. We have needs for variation and pleasure, and that’s why our participants insist that food items must change; where people eat must also vary in a given day, week, and month. Humans have needs for social participation; in the Singapore context, such needs are met when we catch up with our friends at hawker centres, or gather to celebrate special occasions in restaurants with our families. 

When determining what is enough, apart from specific menus and budgets, these are our key findings:

  • What is enough is partly about meeting dietary requirements and partly about other personal and social needs.
  • Dietary requirements change with age and activity, and are also variant due to health conditions. 
  • In order to achieve and maintain good health, food needs to not only be filling but also nutritious. This is not just dieticians’ view but also what participants see as a basic standard of living in Singapore today. Another way of appreciating this insight is to say that participants saw food as a need which is both immediate and recurring, but also long-term in that it meets needs for health and wellbeing. 
  • Significantly, in Singapore today, food is imbued with extraordinary personal significance and social meaning. This was strongly demonstrated by our participants’ discussion of actual food items and eating patterns, and the enthusiasm and joy they brought to discussing food. The way people eat–what, where, and with whom–matters. Humans have needs for choice and autonomy, and these are met when they can buy the food they want when they want it. We have needs for variation and pleasure, and that’s why our participants insist that food items must change; where people eat must also vary in a given day, week, and month. Humans have needs for social participation; in the Singapore context, such needs are met when we catch up with our friends at hawker centres, or gather to celebrate special occasions in restaurants with our families. 

Given what we have found, it is a very profound deprivation to be deprived of food–not just food as filling stomachs, but also the purchase and consumption of food as an act of autonomy, and the eating and enjoyment of food as an act of social participation. 

The CNA and Lien Centre reports indicate a range in the people who face food scarcity. Some are old but others young, some immobile but many mobile, some with families and others single, some unable to work and others working. What they have in common, regardless of these other variations, is income inadequacy. This, in our view, should be the focus of solutions. 

We have learnt through our research that needs encompass not just material things themselves, but also how they are accessed. Choice, autonomy, independence, social participation–these too are basic needs. To live a dignified life, we have to care not just about eating, but how we eat, where, with whom, and on whose terms. In a small city such as Singapore, where food can be bought everywhere, most people are able to physically reach places where food is sold. The meeting of food needs, then, is primarily about income. It may not need to entail coordination and delivery to the extent that charities now carry out. Low wages need to be raised, wages for caregivers needs to be considered, unconditional basic income needs to be seriously discussed. 

In a city as wealthy as Singapore, food needs can and should be universally met. 

Interview with The Edge

Interview with The Edge Singapore

Two members of our research team, Ng Kok Hoe and Teo You Yenn, were interviewed by The Edge Singapore, sharing their thoughts on future policy directions to help people in Singapore meet their needs.

Making sense of data: Household income and expenditure, basic needs and inequality

When the lowest income households have higher expenditure than income, what does this imply about inequality and unmet needs? How do we put trends of mobile phone and aircon ownership in perspective? Ng Kok Hoe and Teo You Yenn offer insight into the latest household income and expenditure data.

Illustration by Jolene Tan

New data on household income and expenditure in 2017/18 has sparked much discussion, with two points drawing particular attention. First, the lowest income quintile group was the only group whose expenditure exceeded income during this period. Second, there appears to be increasingly widespread ownership of certain consumer items, such as mobile telephones and air-conditioning, across all income groups. 

What do these observations imply about whether everyone in Singapore can meet their basic needs? What do they tell us about inequality? 

Are needs going unmet?

The most significant issue to confront is whether people in the lowest income quintile group have sufficient income to meet their basic needs, as this has long-term consequences for their well-being. 

In ongoing research, one of us has found a strong social norm–present in families of all income levels–to spend “within means,” and a strong desire to save. This helps to explain why most households have lower expenditure than income. This norm is shared by those who earn among the lowest 20%; indeed earlier research (Teo You Yenn) has found that people with low incomes are careful about spending. They already forego spending on certain things that higher-income people take for granted as basic needs, with negative long-term consequences—buying cheaper, less nutritious food; delaying seeing doctors;  cheaper and less tuition for kids. 

While attention is sometimes drawn to items like the mobile phone, they do not necessarily make a huge difference to expenditure. In 2017/18, spending on mobile phone services made up just 3% of the monthly expenditure of households in the lowest income quintile group. Instead, necessities like food and transport continue to be the largest items. Compared to the previous Household Expenditure Survey in 2012/13, it is healthcare spending that has increased the most for these low-income households, from 7% to 10% of total expenditure.

The proportion of actual monthly spending for social and recreational purposes generally falls below what–according to elderly participants in our research on minimum income standards–is necessary to allow a sense of belonging, social participation, and engagement in cultural practices. The lowest-income households spend the least in this area, which raises concerns about their inclusion as members of society.

Unequal capacities to save

Expenditure outpacing income also implies insufficient capacity to save and plan for the future, with long-term negative consequences for meeting needs during old age. If there are inequalities in the capacity to save and plan, a social welfare system which ties outcomes to this capacity will tend to reproduce inequality in other areas. In Singapore, for instance, access to retirement security is underpinned by individual savings, access to housing by individual wealth accumulation, and quality of children’s education by individual investment. In other words, inequalities in income translates to unequal access to certain public goods. 

An incapacity to save also means that families which are otherwise generally stable can be easily thrown into crisis by unforeseen occurrences such as an illness, accident, job loss, or the arrival of a child who has special needs. This also raises the question of whether our policies can adequately buffer lower income families against these ordinary and yet unpredictable risks.

What counts as needs?

Illustration by Jolene Tan

Another major issue raised by the expenditure data is the definition of basic needs. It is important for us to understand what are considered basic needs by members of society at a particular point in time, and the extent to which these needs are being met, especially among lower-income groups. The income and expenditure data should be compared with Minimum Income Standards (MIS) or other similar benchmarks of what people need for a basic standard of living in Singapore today. While we have carried out MIS research in relation to older households, we intend to replicate this research across other household types.

Expenditure data alone may give us insights into what is most commonly owned or purchased, but it may fail to account for needs which people currently forego. What people need must not be conflated with what people can afford. Moreover, unlike qualitative research using the MIS method, expenditure data alone cannot reflect and take into account the rationales and social norms that explain why something is a need.

Needs evolve with society

What constitutes ‘needs’ are context specific, and can and do change over time.

We must recognise that as a society’s living standards and lifestyles change, so too do the requirements for belonging and participating in society. Something which was not a basic need before may have become a basic need now because not having that item would make it difficult for someone to participate in society. 

In our research into basic needs for older households, for example, our respondents reminded us that they did not consider mobile phones and internet access to be basic ten years ago. But in Singapore today, one would struggle to function in society without them. Many day-to-day transactions and interactions presume that people have internet access. On the other hand, newspaper subscriptions are no longer considered needs. Items that used to be part of belonging and participation in society may cease to be necessary as society changes. To keep pace with these changes, it is important that research into the definition of needs is updated on a regular basis. 

Conclusion

It is clear that income is a key means of meeting needs and thus a central determinant of well-being in Singapore today. To ensure everyone has sufficient income to meet basic needs, as a society, we need to review wages and redistribution–taxing and spending. To peg such policies to clear standards of adequate well-being, we also need a well-defined and regularly updated baseline of basic needs. 

Budget standards and cultural diversity

We have a new opinion piece (paywall) in The Straits Times today, by research team members Neo Yu Wei and Ad Maulod, examining how the definition of a basic standard in living developed by participants in our research reflected Singaporeans’ values relating to cultural diversity–and how they translated this practically and concretely into the household budgets that emerged:

Researchers in other countries have conducted similar research on minimum household budget standards, such as in the United Kingdom, Japan, Mexico, South Africa. However, only in Singapore did participants include the choice and freedom to engage in “one’s cultural and religious practices” as a key basic need. This underlies the importance participants place on being a member of their cultural community.

In discussing how to translate this definition into everyday practice, participants who come from diverse ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds, took time to hear different views expressed, acknowledge the importance of different practices, before finding ways to agree on common and shared needs for every older person in Singapore.

A budget standard for everyone in a diverse society‘ by Neo Yu Wei and Ad Maulod (The Straits Times, 28 June 2019)

Our latest opinion piece in TODAY

TODAYonline has just published an opinion piece by Teo You Yenn and Ng Kok Hoe of our research team, exploring what it means to set a baseline for meeting needs:

A key aim in the MIS approach is to translate needs which may initially appear abstract — needs for independence or connection, for example — into concrete things which can be clearly and explicitly budgeted for.

The oft-repeated cliché that “money cannot buy happiness” may well be true in its most literal and simplistic conception, but our participants’ deliberations demonstrated that there are many concrete and material things — which require specific sums of money — that are needed to meet people’s needs.

While these material things cannot guarantee anything as subjective as “happiness”, they are deeply connected to well-being and important preconditions to happiness.

S$1,379 a month needed for basic needs? This is how Singapore’s seniors agree on this baseline‘ by Teo You Yenn and Ng Kok Hoe (TODAYonline, 4 June 2019)

MIS in the news! (4)

Media discussion of our MIS report findings is continuing! In today’s Straits Times, Dr Kanwaljit Soin writes:

We also know that current older workers are paid low wages, with two-thirds employed as cleaners, labourers and related workers, and categorised in the three lowest-paying occupational categories. They are paid less than the sum required for a basic standard of living, if we take $1,379 as the benchmark.

Needy Singapore citizens and permanent residents who are unable to work due to old age, illness, disability or unfavourable family circumstances, have been recipients of what is known as the Public Assistance Scheme and now called the ComCare Long-Term Assistance scheme.

The sum given per month for many years was about $500 and below, and finally increased to $600 per person this year, with two-person households getting $1,000.
Looking at CPF and retirement schemes shows there are real shortfalls in achieving the MIS through these routes.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo revealed in Parliament in February that nearly three-quarters of those getting monthly payouts from the CPF Life Scheme or Retirement Sum Scheme receive less than $500 a month, while average monthly payouts for those between 70 and 79 was just $290.

Only 268,000 people were receiving these payments. The number of people over 65 is more than half a million, and so the remainder was left out of these two schemes.

Helping the elderly thrive is good for Singapore as a community‘ by Kanwaljit Soin (The Straits Times, 4 June 2019)

There were also several reports on the weekend: