SOME things are not as simple as they should be in Malaysia. Poverty is one of them.

It seems what you see is not what you get. Statistics tell us that our poverty headcount, meaning the percentage of Malaysians living below the poverty line, was 0.4 in 2016 (the latest figure available).

By this count, there were only 12,800 people struggling to put food on their table.

But the reality is more complicated. The first complication is the very low poverty line.

According to a 2018 Universiti Malaysia Kelantan study, any household with a gross monthly income below RM760 and RM460 in the peninsula is classified as absolute poor and extreme poor, respectively.

This reads like a strategy to keep the poverty headcount really low to appease the souls of policymakers. The poverty bar must go up if we want to get real.

Another complicating factor is the ever increasing rural-to-urban migration. For long, policymakers were designing their poverty reduction programmes for the rural poor.

Granted, rural poverty was a big issue then. Today, Malaysia’s urbanisation rate stands at 76 per cent. With such migration, poverty too has hitched a ride to urban centres.

The roofless are now a common sight not only in Kuala Lumpur, but elsewhere too. So if you think the number 12,800 somewhat suspect, you are not terribly wrong.

One just can’t get by with RM760 in urban areas, what more with RM460. Low salary has been a thorn in the flesh of Malaysian employees for a long time.

Deputy Defence Minister Liew Chin Tong has an appealing long-term solution to cure this: change the wage structure.

The divide between the rich and the poor is getting wider as well. Past frailties — such as some wakil rakyat flush with funds — have not helped. Such patronage must be avoided at all costs, for now and the future.

A big hole in the nation’s coffers to the tune of about RM650 billion is the result. This could have gone towards eliminating the poverty headcount.

Instead, the government has to consider other options. One such is the cost of living aid (Bantuan Sara Hidup). In January, the government doled out RM1.2 billion to 4.1 million housewives and RM300 million to three million individuals, all in the B40 group.

The government is reportedly working on other social safety net programmes as part of its efforts to prosper the economy and people.

Whatever that may be, it should take the shape of a permanent cure for poverty. Social protection reforms must not just provide them with “fish”, it must make them “fishermen”.

But this must be economics-driven, not politically motivated, says Associate Professor Aimi Zulhazmi Abdul Rashid, director of Universiti Kuala Lumpur’s Strategic Project Office.

Economics — however dismal a science it is — teaches us that education, skills and attributes escalate our productivity and earning potential. Herein lies the formula to transition the poor out of their poverty.