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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on Sept. 14)

Editorials from Korean dailies 07:14 September 14, 2021

Rule-of-thumb relief
Government, ruling party to expand pandemic aid as those excluded complain

The government and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea plan to expand the range of COVID-19 relief aid recipients from the bottom 88 percent income bracket to the bottom 90 percent as complaints are pouring from those excluded from the grant.

The government and the party originally agreed on the bottom 80 percent in early July but eventually expanded the scope to 88 percent, reflecting demands by some in the party for relief money to the whole nation and affected by Gyeonggi Provincial Gov. Lee Jae-myung's decision to give COVID aid to all residents in the province. Then, they are now considering extending the range again to 90 percent, four days after the application for the handout began last Monday. They seem to have hurriedly presented the measure as a makeshift to settle grievances among those left out of the relief program.

When they agreed to dole out 250,000 won ($210) to each individual in the bottom 88 percent bracket in terms of health insurance premium, the National Health Insurance Service advanced an adverse opinion that it is not an adequate standard because it does not reflect income changes properly. But they ignored the opinion. Furthermore, they did not give reasonable grounds for the 88 percent standard. Discontent was effectively predicted. Retired landlords may receive the aid if their incomes are small, while working couples may not if they earn decent salaries though they are houseless tenants. The number of complaints filed with the Anti-Corruption & Civil rights Commission alone surpassed 65,000 in five days until last Friday. Considering that complaints can also be filed with district community service centers, the number would be a lot higher than that.

Park Wan-joo, chair of the party's policymaking committee, said that the party and the government are considering ways to save those just above the cutoff line to ensure they do not feel victimized. Ko Yong-jin, a spokesperson of the party, said that if the complaints are accepted, the range of beneficiaries can be extended to 90 percent. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and Economy Hong Nam-ki said that the government will consider giving the fund if the eligibility of a complainant is a borderline case.

The new boundary of 90 percent does not look definite. If complaints continue to pour from those a bit above the new boundary, will the government and the ruling party then seek to expand the scope again?

Expanding the scope for relief grant is an extemporaneous move to appease complainants with money. If the number of relief recipients increase by 2 percentage points, an additional 300 billion won will be required. However, the government and the ruling party seem to take it as nothing serious. Executing a state program that spends 11 trillion won in taxpayer money is not playing house.

This confusion dates back to the first round of COVID relief last year. The Ministry of Finance and Economy planned to offer the aid to those in the bottom 50 percent income bracket, but the criteria fell apart as the ruling party demanded they be given to every household apparently in a bid to win the hearts of voters ahead of the April 15 general elections. The party took an overwhelming majority.

If the government and the ruling party gave less money in the latest relief but to every individual instead, there would have been no complaints. Or, relief aid might be more effective and tax saved if the range of beneficiaries is narrowed to the bottom 20 percent or 30 percent, or restricted to those hit hard by the economic impact of the pandemic. It is unfair to provide relief money even to stable income earners rarely affected by the pandemic.

In the end, relief aid is not free. It comes from taxes and government debt. The government and the ruling party drew up an extra budget to offer the aid. The unprincipled policy of handing out cash by rule of thumb is causing unnecessary confusion and strife among people. So, that's why it is criticized as a populist measure to win voters' favor with money in upcoming elections rather than an effective COVID relief.
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