Monday, February 9, 2009

SOCIAL WORKER: More middle-income families need help

Feb 6, 2009

SOCIAL worker Patricia Wee sees more middle-income families coming for help as the ranks of retrenched workers swell.

One couple wanted financial aid so that they could keep their two children in a before-and-after school care facility.

Probing deeper, she found that the father had just lost his job - and his $2,400-a-month salary. Only the mother was working, earning $1,200 a month.

'There's a lot of uncertainty,' Ms Wee, 27, tells Insight.

'He has to withdraw his children from before-and-after school care, and the couple have to decide who should be the caregiver.'

Social workers like Ms Wee stand in the front line of helping households cope with a recession that is expected to be deeper and longer than any Singapore has experienced.

They are often the first point of contact in the community, and the ones that grassroots leaders and MPs will turn to when residents face financial hardship.

But the impact of a job loss or business failure goes beyond economics.

Marital tension may build up, and the stresses on parents are played out on their children, says Ms Wee.

In the couple's case, a sudden withdrawal of their primary school-going children from the childcare centre could be highly disruptive.

The children would lose their stable routine, familiar surroundings and circle of friends.

'The younger children may not adapt fast enough,' she notes.

The couple's plight mirrors that of many more who have been showing up at the Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre (FSC), where Ms Wee has worked for the past 2-1/2 years.

It is seeing an average of 140 cases a month, up from 90 to 100 cases a month a year ago.

Middle-income families typically ask for temporary financial help to tide them over for a few months while they look for a job.

In the meantime, marriages may be strained if the husband who is retrenched has a mindset that the man should work and the woman should stay at home to look after the children, Ms Wee notes. 'The man might feel that if the woman goes to work, it hurts his pride.'

When parents cannot agree, their frustrations are felt by their children, who may become withdrawn and quiet, skip school or not return home at night.

Children of middle-income families who are used to a better life would also feel more greatly the impact of a change in the family's financial situation.

Ms Wee notes: 'The children could be receiving $10 as pocket money, then one day, suddenly Mummy and Daddy tell them they will receive $5. Some children might compare with their friends when they are unable to afford certain things.'

Among low-income families, many are contract workers whose jobs may be terminated without retrenchment benefits.

But Ms Wee reckons they may also be more resilient than middle-income families.

'They tend to be able to face setbacks better because they have been facing uncertainties throughout their lives, whereas the lives of middle-income families have been more stable.'

More aid is available for this group too, such as The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund and ComCare Fund disbursed by the constituency-level Citizens Consultative Committee.

While this unprecedented global downturn will pose a heavy burden on many families, Ms Wee is seeing how it can also bring them closer.

She cites one family who asked for temporary help while the father looked for a job. His business had failed and the family downgraded from a private condominium to a HDB flat.

'It gave the children more insight into the family's finances,' says Ms Wee. 'You see the whole family cooperating, by saving electricity and water.'


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