‘If no work at all, how?’ Low-income families grapple with zero income, higher expenses amid circuit breaker
How financial worries are gripping families in public rental flats, in the second of two stories looking at the impact of COVID-19 measures on the less advantaged.
SINGAPORE: When Tina’s husband Seth, 37, lost his income as a kitchen assistant at a night market stall in March, it was a blow in more ways than one.
His job took him from location to location – “Joo Chiat, Tampines, wherever there’s a night market”, said Tina – but it was at the annual Geylang Serai bazaar that he would typically double his income.
This year, with the COVID-19 outbreak, the physical bazaar and other events were cancelled. Seth was put on no-pay leave. “When we normally hope to get more, now we’re getting nothing at all,” said Tina, 38, a home-maker. (All names in this story have been changed.)
“I was thinking, what about tomorrow, and the day after? If there is (no work) for one month, that’s okay, we can be patient.
If it is for months, how? If there is nothing at all, how?
Living expenses weigh on her mind. The couple live with eight children, aged 15 months to 19 years, in a two-room public rental flat. And since full home-based learning (HBL) kicked in on Apr 8, the children have not been to school, where three of them would have gotten free meals under the Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS).
“Right now everyone is home, so a lot of money is flowing out,” Tina said.
Then there’s Jeff, 50, who has four children and one grandchild to support. He used to make a living ferrying schoolchildren as a bus driver, but then the schools closed.
All that weight on his shoulders, plus the constant noise of the children in the confines of their two-room rental flat, sometimes pushes him to lose his temper.
“Working to make money for my family, that’s my responsibility. Because of the virus, everything is stuck. I’m so stressed every day,” he said.
The family has been getting ComCare assistance of S$1,470 cash a month, along with help with rent, utilities and conservancy charges. They also get S$160 a month from a religious organisation, and wife Eva, a part-time cleaner at a nearby Social Service Office (SSO), continues to be paid S$320 a month despite having to stop work.
Even so, they can’t help but worry about how long they can go on without work. Said Eva, 47: “One month was still okay, but now it’s two months. We are so stressed. We cannot just stay at home, so my husband has been trying to find a job.”
In Singapore, some 52,000 households like Tina’s and Eva’s live in government-subsidised rental flats. Social service agency Beyond Social Services (BSS) has been actively reaching out to this group since the pandemic began, and has started a COVID-19 Family Assistance Fund.
It notes that 84 families received help in March, while 170 applications are being processed for the month of April. The group disbursed financial aid to 57 families in its network in the whole of 2019.
“Many beneficiaries are daily wage workers,” said BSS assistant director Lim Shaw Hui. The moment the "circuit breaker" was announced, some of them really had no work, so there was a need to provide emergency funds for them.”
She added that they have been “actively calling members”, and about 75 per cent of those contacted indicated they need financial assistance. “A lot of people may not know how to access the government schemes, or may not be eligible. This is where we fill in the gap,” she added.
“We do think that ComCare may not be sufficient at this point in time… It was supposed to supplement what they have, but now they have lost their jobs or there is reduced income.”
This was the case for Tina’s family. They have been receiving S$1,600 a month in ComCare assistance, and S$400 monthly in cash and vouchers from a religious body. But when Seth’s income dried up completely, this assistance was no longer enough, they said.
Tina can no longer do her monthly shopping in Batam as she used to, because of travel restrictions. There, supplies like milk powder and toothpaste were much cheaper.
Said her daughter Ella, 19: “Previously, we didn’t really have to fork out so much on food at home, because the only time my mum had to cook was for dinner. Now … (paying for) groceries is one of the biggest financial worries.”
BSS beneficiaries have also shared that the cost of basic foods has increased, and it appears that panic buying could be the reason, said Stephanie Chok, the assistant director of research and development.
“If the nearest supermarket is not well stocked, then the more affordable items will be gone,” said the 46-year-old. “So even if they receive NTUC (FairPrice) vouchers, they can’t use it to buy the items they need.
"And if they go to a provision shop to find it, they can’t buy because they don’t have the cash.”
A BIGGER LIFELINE
Out of worry, Tina’s husband tried applying for the Temporary Relief Fund (TRF), a one-off scheme for those who had lost their jobs or substantial part of their income due to COVID-19 – not realising it wasn’t open to those on ComCare assistance.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) notes that those on ComCare are “generally supported over a longer period of time” while the TRF provides “interim support”.
But, its spokesperson added, “families whose circumstances have changed during this period” may approach the SSOs “to review, and potentially increase” their ComCare Short-to-Medium Term Assistance support.
That is what has happened with Tina’s family.
Just today (Apr 30), an elated Tina told CNA Insider she’d been informed that the family would be getting S$2,510 a month from May to October – an increase of about S$900 – along with other help with rental and household bills.
Said Tina: “I’m not lacking to the point that I cannot eat. The government here, thankfully, is helping us sufficiently. They give us food, they give us money… If I am out of cash, I phone the family service centre, and they’ll give me vouchers to buy milk and food for the children.”
The MSF spokesperson noted that new ComCare beneficiaries will, generally, receive at least six months of assistance.
As for existing clients, assistance will be extended “without review, waiving the need for submission of new documents and signatures”, said MSF. This addresses a hassle that some have griped about in the past.
Noting that the help ComCare offered was “holistic”, and in addition to Budget measures such as a Solidarity Payment and GST vouchers, the MSF spokesperson said: “Our SSOs and community partners are proactively reaching out to lower-income families to ensure their daily needs are met.”
Nora, 47, operates a school canteen stall with her husband. Since the circuit breaker, they have been reduced to operating just three days a week, providing food for the several students still attending school.
The couple, their five children and one grandson had last received S$500 a month in ComCare Assistance up until March. They had not gotten around to applying for an extension, before their SSO reached out to them.
It will be reviewing their situation which Nora describes as “very, very stressful”. “Now, income almost zero. Everybody is at home so we have more things to spend on, and everything is so expensive,” she said.
“We are blessed that we can apply for some funds… both of us can try to make do with this for now.”
COMMUNITY SOURCES OF HELP
For families in rental flats, there also other sources of help, especially with food essentials.
Students under the Education Ministry’s FAS can tap the subsidies disbursed to their School Smartcards, to spend at food courts and supermarkets, for instance. Tina can withdraw up to S$80 each for her two primary school children, and up to S$120 for Max, her 16-year-old, for the four weeks of HBL which ends on Monday.
The children can also register for S$55 worth of Grabfood e-vouchers, under the Community Development Councils’ Student Meals Scheme.
Non-profit ReadAble has gone beyond literacy classes for Nora and Eva’s children, to arranging for groceries or NTUC FairPrice vouchers. Meanwhile Tina’s family, along with other BSS clients, is benefitting from a daily dinner delivery service by Project Makan, launched by Social Kitchen @ YMCA and SHINE Children and Youth Services.
Tina, Nora and Eva’s families – already receiving food rations or groceries from BSS or other help groups – have also been linked up with food charities Food From The Heart and Free Food For All.
Today, the Temasek Foundation announced that more than 300,000 free meals would be provided to vulnerable families and individuals over the next six months.
STILL, UNCERTAINTY AHEAD
But none of this has fully allayed the longer-term fears of the families, with the COVID-19 pandemic riddling the future with uncertainties.
For Tina's husband Seth, finding work is still the main imperative. “He’s looking for jobs, even if it’s just part-time. We will need to fund our daily expenses. For food, for transport to go to school, to go for therapy,” said Tina, whose three younger sons attend behavioural therapy classes.
Even if he finds work and circuit breaker measures are eased in the short term, there is still the possibility of such measures being re-introduced intermittently over the months.
Said BSS’ Stephanie: “If their jobs do not provide an option for working from home, if they don’t get paid leave, childcare leave or medical leave, every time there’s a disruption, (these families) have to make many types of arrangements just to make sure their lives carry on as smoothly as possible.”
Some might not even get their jobs back, or find new jobs after the measures have been lifted, she added.
Even though single father Sam – who lives with his daughter in a one-room flat – is one of the luckier ones who continues to work as a security guard, he’s afraid it might not last.
His salary now is enough able to cover the bills and groceries. But, he said, “The company I work for is on a yearly contract. I’m not sure if the condominium management will renew my boss’ contract.”
Read the first story: Home-based learning blues: Life in a rental flat during the COVID-19 circuit breaker