Female-headed households were especially disadvantaged at the outset of the Covid-19 crisis, and now appear to be recovering more slowly since a reopening of various socio-economic sectors.
This was based on findings from the second phase of a long-term study commissioned by United Nations agencies Unicef and UNFPA, which show livelihoods and the well-being of many low-income families in Kuala Lumpur have started to recover.
The study, performed between the start of the MCO period and September, however, found that the recovery is partial, uneven and uncertain, with female-headed households and families affected by disability being among the most vulnerable to future shocks, then other low-income households.
The study, involving 500 heads of households from selected People’s Housing Projects (PPR), was conducted in partnership with DM Analytics, a public policy and research firm led by economist Muhammed Abdul Khalid.
Of the figure, 21 percent or 105 households are headed by a female, from which 18 percent are single mothers.
In presenting its findings during a virtual launch today, Muhammed noted that on average, the families reported an income of 10 percent lower than their earnings prior to the initial Movement Control Order (MCO) in March.
"Although the median household income has increased by 23 percent between May 2020 and September to RM2,233, it is still about 10 percent lower in comparison to last year.
"Of the surveyed households, 68 percent of the heads of households have no savings, which is higher than 63 percent recorded last year," he said.
Muhammed further highlighted that 93 percent of heads of households with a disability revealed they had no savings, followed by 71 percent among the female heads of households in PPRs around Kuala Lumpur.
Across the board, 68 percent of the households surveyed shared that they were unable to set aside any savings, including due to limited or non-existent income throughout the MCO period.
Among others, Muhammed said this was partly due to the high self-employment rate among the female heads of households and heads of households with a disability, limiting their access to social protection measures such as EPF and Socso.
The problem was also attributed to a general lack of awareness among lower-income households on various social protection measures.
According to the study, four in 10 of those currently working do not have an EPF or Socso account, and the figure is higher among working female heads of households (51 percent) and household heads with disabilities (73 percent).
At the same time, Muhammed said the two household categories continue to record a high unemployment rate - 60 per cent among household heads with disabilities and 20 percent among female-headed households.
Pressing finances had also impacted children
Overall, the study found that pressing finances had also impacted children from the urban poor families, with nine percent of those in upper secondary classes found to have dropped out of school since the reopening post-MCO. The 500 households comprise 2,832 household members, of which 1,155 are children of school-going age.
For the parents, up to 65 percent reported challenges in paying to keep their children in school, including for daily expenses including pocket money and transportation.
"This second survey has confirmed the trend identified in the first survey, that female-headed households and households affected by disability are finding it particularly difficult to recover from the socio-economic impacts of Covid-19," according to the report.
In terms of recommendations, UNFPA Malaysia representative Najib Assifi said the agency proposed several key corrective measures, including to the setting up of a comprehensive social protection programme to effectively reduce poverty and vulnerability.
"The priority is to address vital issues such as the expansion of coverage and provision of benefits.
"This would mean that protection assistance is specifically designed to meet the socio-economic needs of vulnerable groups during national or even personal crisis," Najib said in his opening remarks.
For policy reforms, Najib said the government could look into reallocation of resources to target vulnerable groups, including women who are still afflicted with both economic and social disadvantages and also have to carry out maternal and household responsibilities.
Unicef Malaysia Social Policy chief Stephen Barrett, meanwhile, said the agency's priority is to strengthen the overall social protection system, in order to create bridges between vulnerable families and service providers.
Similarly, UNFPA Malaysia technical advisor Dr Narimah Awin also said more has to be done to promote awareness among lower-income households on the need for them to participate in social protection schemes.