Ministry vows to further tackle social relief system misconduct

Pledge in response to fraud cases in which village officials' relatives profited

Civil Affairs Minister Li Jiheng pledged on Wednesday to strengthen supervision to curb misconduct within the social relief system, which is considered a crucial bottom-line buffer that could be used to help the last remnant of China's have-nots escape dire poverty before 2021.

Li made the remarks in a report delivered at a bimonthly session of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's top legislature, which opened in Beijing on Monday.

The 16-page report focused on the relief system's role in helping combat absolute poverty-defined as a family living on less than 2,300 yuan ($328) a year, set in 2010 and adjusted annually for inflation. The central authorities have pledged to eradicate absolute poverty by the end of next year.

China allocated 562 billion yuan as subsidy funds to help people in need from 2016 to 2019, he said.

The funds were used to help people in extreme poverty, orphans, the homeless and beggars, among others.

In his report, Li said his ministry will work with relevant authorities to iron out details, including the targets, measures and standards of social relief, and accelerate the process to codify them in laws.

"We'll strive to lay a solid legal basis for social relief work, coordinated urban-rural development, poverty reduction and rural revitalization," he said.

China has seen a rapid decline of its impoverished population over the last few years. China's rural poor, which stood at almost 100 million in 2012, plummeted to 16.6 million by the end of last year. Poverty relief authorities estimate another 10 million or more will shake off poverty this year.

The remnants of the impoverished Chinese are mainly from a mosaic of ethnic communities scattered across western regions-commonly referred to as the Three Areas and Three Prefectures-which are deeply impoverished, officials said.

A large percentage of the impoverished Chinese are sick, frail with age or have disabilities, which has made it difficult for authorities to lift them out of poverty through conventional means such as fostering local industries or developing tourism.

Basic living allowances and other State benefits are considered the last approaches to be adopted by the government to help them ward off the "Two Worries"-the lack of food and sufficient clothing-that are the threshold requirement for needy families to cast off the poverty label.

But a few cases of fraud involving such benefits have emerged in recent years, in which recipients were usually relatives and associates of village officials rather than those really in need.

In taking up the issue, Li said the ministry has reviewed hundreds of millions of applications nationwide over the last five years and found about 8 percent of them were fraudulent.

He added that breakthroughs have been made in the sharing of data among different departments, including applicants' insurance status, bank savings and property ownership, in an effort to curb fraud and save on government spending.

Despite the fraud, the minister stressed in his report that much progress has been made in social relief, which over the years has expanded to include cash benefits and a string of other temporary assistance measures ranging from healthcare to housing programs, all aimed at helping needy people survive during difficult times.

The progress includes a steady increase of fiscal input in the system, improved identification of potential beneficiaries and a further streamlined application process. A price subsidy mechanism has also been created to curb the impact of price hikes on benefit recipients, he said.

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