KUALA LUMPUR, May 8 — Poverty incidence remains prevalent in the country’s capital even as income and employment improved for many of its poorest households in the post-Covid 19 era, Unicef said in its latest and final report of a years-long study that tracked the lives of hundreds of public housing dwellers.

The number of households living both under the relative and absolute poverty line only marginally decreased despite a strong economic rebound in 2022 and 2023, staying at 41 per cent as of October 2023 or just 4 per cent lower than it was in March 2021, at the height of the new coronavirus pandemic that forced the world to go into cycles of lockdowns.

The poverty rate was still highest among households headed by persons with disability, the report said, at 67 per cent of the 755 households surveyed.

Hardcore poverty stood at 8 per cent and was highest among households headed by people with a disability, at 17 per cent. Children are equally affected, with up to four in ten found living in poverty.

Hardcore or absolute poverty is defined as households earning less than RM1,100 a month and relative poverty at around RM2,100.

"What we find troubling is the harrowing impact of fiscal constraints inflicted by the soaring cost of living on innocent children," said Muhammed Abdul Khalid, lead author of the study commissioned by Unicef.

"About one in two kids have to skip a meal, and eat less than three meals a day. It is pointless to boast that we have eradicated poverty while knowing that some of our children, living in the wealthiest state, go to bed hungry, or attend school on an empty stomach."

Living on the edge

The study was a continuation of the Families on The Edge project, a four-phase mixed-methods longitudinal study commissioned by Unicef and the United Nations Funding Population Agency (UNFPA) to measure the impact of the pandemic on women and children in low-income families here.

The Living on the Edge report focuses on a survey undertaken post-pandemic conducted from October 14, 2023, to November 16, 2023, with data collected from 755 low-income households living in 16 low-cost public housing (PPR) around the city.

Since the third survey, median monthly household earnings showed some recovery, rising by 32 per cent to nearly RM3,000, Unicef said. Among female-headed households median earnings are RM1,600, which is 23 per cent or RM300 higher than in 2019.

Earnings for households led by persons with disabilities also improved but only slightly. They remain the lowest-earning families among those surveyed, with just a median salary of RM1,550 a month.

Researchers attributed the increase in pay to an improved labour market, reflected in the lower rate of unemployment among those surveyed. By October 2023, the rate dropped to 5.9 per cent from 12 per cent at the peak of the pandemic.

Households led by a person with disabilities recorded the highest reemployment, the report noted, but still recorded the lowest earnings.

"This shows that even if they managed to get jobs, their wage level is still extremely low," Unicef said.

"This report is a story about resilience, independence and hard work and the struggle for social mobility. It debunks myths about the poor being lazy," Muhammed said.

Cutting meals

Still, nearly all of those surveyed felt their wages cannot support even a decent standard of living, with eight out of ten families saying they struggle to meet basic needs, one higher than during the pandemic.

"Increased food prices have a real impact on most low-income households with 90 per cent forced to make extreme choices, including reducing food intake. One out of two children are now reportedly eating less than three meals a day," Unicef said.

The findings should alarm policymakers who have vowed to tackle stunting among children growing up in the city's poorest areas. Stunted children often fail to reach their physical and cognitive potential, preventing them from learning and picking up skills quicker that are needed for high-paying employment compared to children from well-to-do families, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Low income families also face tougher battles to access quality education. Unicef said parents surveyed are increasingly concerned about the future of their children even if they have the highest enrollment rate, with the cost to go to school topping concerns.

Up to 78 per cent of parents polled said they are worried about the increasing cost of sending their kids to school since the pandemic, with families led by females and persons with disabilities being the highest - at 80 and 82 per cent respectively.

Universal allowance

Juanita Vasquez-Escallon, Unicef Malaysia's chief of social policy, said the findings of the latest survey again reinforce the need to rethink poverty intervention.

"Ensuring post-pandemic recovery means caring for the most vulnerable: low-income families, especially those headed by women and individuals with disabilities. Life isn't solely about sustenance but also the quality of life," she said.

"Investing in both only ensures that children and families not only survive but flourish."

Unicef, echoing experts worldwide, is pushing for a universal childcare allowance and universal allowance for persons with disabilities as policy interventions. The former would entail giving families RM200 a month or some RM2.2 billion annually, while the latter would amount to about RM3.2 billion a month.

Both the programmes would account for just 0.12 per cent and 0.17 per cent of GDP respectively.

Vasquez-Escallon and Muhammed are also calling for enhancements to social assistance, improved access to mental health services and put in place a policy that ensures fair wages. Unicef said its survey showed only 7 per cent of low-income households felt petrol subsidy helps, with most preferring cash aid and higher wages instead.

"Increasing wages and maintaining ongoing cash assistance programmes are the preferred policy measures for households to alleviate the impact of the rising cost of living. Cash assistance and price controls for food items are deemed the most beneficial measures," it said.