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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Sept. 13)

Editorials from Korean dailies 07:09 September 13, 2023

Protect households in crisis
Steps urgent to plug welfare loopholes for underprivileged

The other day, a woman, 41, was found dead at a tenement in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province.

An autopsy revealed that the cause of death was arteriosclerosis. Her child, lying unconscious next to the decomposed body, had not eaten for days. The toddler reportedly woke up in the hospital crying and asking for her mother.

Police believe that the family had been suffering financially for a long time. The woman had no steady job and was in arrears on electricity, gas and rent, as shown by heaps of bills amid her garbage. The discovery would have been delayed had it not been for her landlord's report of no contact with the tenant. The boy's fate could also have been different.

Thus, this society has lost another "crisis household."

The term was coined in 2014 when a woman and her two adult daughters took their own lives in Seoul, leaving a note saying they were sorry and paying some overdue bills. Two more similar tragedies occurred last year.

Even more regretful in the latest case was the mother and child were already registered on the government's crisis household list. In July, a clerk at the community office sent her a notice, phoned her and visited their home but couldn't find them because the address was not detailed enough. Some indebted families also live in places different from their registered addresses to avoid creditors, foreclosures ― and even helping hands.

The mother might have survived had the official asked around the neighborhood. However, one can hardly blame him, considering he had to confirm 550 such households in two months, doing all the legwork. This year, the Ministry of Health and Welfare sent a list of about 10,000 potential households in crisis to Jeonju, which has a population of 650,000. By simple arithmetic, that means there could be about 800,000 crisis households among 51.78 million Koreans.

That illustrates how a policy could differ between central and regional levels and from the desk to the field. Earlier this year, President Yoon Suk Yeol, alarmed by two family suicides in 2022, called for "eliminating welfare blind spots." The health and welfare ministry put finding vulnerable families at the top of this year's work list. The ministry then increased the list of danger signals, such as self-seclusion and arrears of utility bills, from 33 to 44 while introducing an AI calling system. However, most community offices still don't have more than one official for the job.

Upon taking office 16 months ago, President Yoon pushed for "welfare for the weak," criticizing his predecessor's policy as "politicized welfare." Yoon also called for "selective" welfare instead of universal welfare.

It didn't take long before Koreans knew what he meant. In his famous ― or infamous ― 35-minute-long welfare speech on May 31, Yoon explained how the previous government's cash benefits fattened the pockets of the well-to-do and made people lazy while stressing the need to introduce competition in the welfare area, too. He then vowed to reduce wasteful welfare money and focus spending on the most vulnerable class.

However, the presidential speech only revealed his ignorance of welfare and true political colors ― financial austerity, small government and market principles. No one takes issue with providing extra care for the vulnerable. But that must not be a zero-sum game with the middle-class benefits, especially in this era of rapidly polarizing income and wealth. Yoon must know even the U.S. and some European countries considered introducing a universal basic income of $1,000 a month.

More important than saving crisis households is keeping as many families as possible from falling into that trap. In the tight 2024 budget, the Yoon administration reduced outlays for public housing, aid programs for disabled people and jobs for older adults.

Welfare in most advanced societies is not a benefit or dispensation but a right. Unless Yoon and his administration change their basic concepts about welfare, Koreans may see more ― not fewer ― crisis households in the next three to four years.

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