THE low-skilled in Singapore feel less in control of their economic destinies than the high-skilled.

This is the picture that emerges when one compares the two groups' responses to questions on factors that help economic success, and obstacles that hinder it.

Some 65 per cent of the low-skilled say Lady Luck plays a part. Only 38 per cent of the high-skilled agree.

Seven in 10 of the low-skilled, a group which includes cleaners, labourers and machine operators, cite poverty as an obstacle to economic achievement. Only five in 10 of the high-skilled agree.

The high-skilled, who include professionals, managers and senior officials, are also more likely to attribute economic success to one's personal drive and ambition. The low-skilled are more likely to link success to knowing the right people.

This gap in perceptions bears watching, say social work experts, who warn that a 'permanent underclass' forms when those at the bottom begin to believe they will never move up.

This is how Mr Muhammad Nadim Adam, a research and policy executive at Malay-Muslim self-help group Mendaki, describes it: 'When their aspirations become so low that they are in a self-fulfilling prophecy of low achievement, when they become contented with inferiority because that's all they have ever known.'

For now, Insight's survey suggests that has not happened because Singaporeans across the board still believe that if they work hard, they will make progress.

Still, poor families often feel resigned to their fate and disappointed at their own failure to do better.

Among them is Madam Nancy Lee, 64, an odd-job worker whose husband died 20 years ago, leaving her to raise their two children alone.

'I had to work very hard, but in the end, my daughter studied only up to Secondary 4, and my son dropped out of secondary school.

'I couldn't take care of them properly when I had to work so hard to pay the bills. It's a regret,' says Madam Lee, who lives in a rental HDB flat.

Her two adult children and their families also live in rental housing, not having earned enough to buy their own flat.

While she says that the factors which help one succeed are 'subjective', someone who is born rich 'gets a step up'.

Social workers say that those in this group still put a lot of faith in their children's advancement, even while seemingly having given up on their own. They are more likely to ask for free tuition for their kids than skills training for themselves.

In the survey, 83 per cent of the low-skilled believe that the next generation will have higher standards of living, compared to 74 per cent of high-skilled respondents.

But when asked about their own economic circumstances 10 years from now, close to six in 10 of those with low skills said it would be the same, worse or much worse.

Mr Mohamad Shyam Hassan, 43, gave up on a security guard course after failing the first module. He is now looking for cleaning work because his focus, he says, is saving to help his daughter pay for a nursing course at the Institute of Technical Education. 'I really hope she passes (the entrance exam),' he says. 'Then she can work and have a better life.'

Still, social workers say that the belief in self-reliance among this group remains strong. Families she helps are often surprised to find that they are eligible for social and financial aid, says Madam Ruth Leong, a senior counsellor at the Sembawang Family Service Centre.

They are also keenly aware that the financial assistance is temporary, she says. Schemes like ComCare, where cash is disbursed to those in need, are only meant to tide families over rough patches.

But National University of Singapore poverty researcher Irene Ng cautions that this awareness can be counter-productive. Knowing that soon they will need to find another way to survive forces them to live hand-to-mouth, day-by-day, without the breathing space to think about the long term or invest in ways to advance upwards.

'They know they have to go to different agencies and prove and prove their situation. Working different jobs, pawning things, those are their ways to survive,' she says. 'But true self-reliance cannot come from temporary relief. You must help people for a period of time until they can stand on their own feet. If not, they will fall back in.'

Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Lily Neo, whose Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng constituency has the most rental flat blocks among wards here, concurs that the concept of self-reliance must be tempered with an awareness that some families should not be left alone.

Sources of social and financial assistance are in place, she says, but the Government has always preferred to have those in need come forward and seek help. But in the face of a growing pool of dysfunctional, low-income families, some form of active intervention must occur, she argues.

Since she entered politics in 1997, the number of such families in her ward has trebled, she says. They now make up half of the 100 cases at her weekly Meet-the-People session.

Last year, she advocated in Parliament for dedicated social workers to track the children of families in the bottom 5 per cent, whose parents often cannot provide more adequate care.

'I know for a big country, it is impossible. But we have a limited pool of our own citizens. There needs to be a targeted approach of special care for these children. One-to-one social workers who will follow up and provide emotional support so that they get a better chance rather than being left on their own.'

Also worth monitoring is the group treading water just above the bottom, said other observers.

In Insight's survey, the mid-skilled group consisted of clerical staff and sales and service workers. While they said that hard work and values were the top two factors for moving up the economic ladder, they were also more likely than the high-skilled to believe that luck, having well-educated parents and coming from a stable background were key boosts.

Mendaki's Mr Nadim says that his concern is the 'working poor' among the mid-skilled group - those with jobs, sometimes even university degrees, and who own their own flats - but have multiple dependants.

A breadwinner in this group may be earning more than the low-skilled, but due to the number of mouths to feed may face a 'bottom percentile reality', he notes.

In data that the Ministry of Manpower has published, clerical workers now earn a median gross wage of $2,139. In 2007, it was $1,719. This is a nominal rise of 24 per cent, but inflation over the period averaged 3.5 per cent per year.

Compounding the problem is that this group is usually ineligible for the most generous subsidies and handouts from the Government. According to 58-year- old Nancy Goh, 'we are getting poorer and poorer, while the rich get richer and the poor get subsidised'.

While her $3,200 pay as an administrative staff at a junior college and her executive flat put her far above the bottom, she has two brothers living with her and two sons. Her husband is an administrative staff at a security firm. Her flat size excludes her from receiving more government rebates, she points out, but she says that her family struggles more than some in smaller flats.

One of her brothers does not work due to a medical condition. The other is a taxi driver. Both are divorced.

Her older son, 29, dropped out after taking N levels. He received a diploma in information technology from a private institution, but it was not recognised by certain bodies he applied to work for, like the Singapore Police Force. He now wants to further his studies, but has to do it on the side of a sales job, she says.

'It's very difficult for my kids. Everything is sky-high expensive,' she says. As for herself: 'I cannot afford to retire.'