Family tragedies reveal hole in welfare system

By Yoon Min-sik
  • Published : Mar 4, 2014 - 20:45
  • Updated : Mar 4, 2014 - 20:45
A string of poverty-related suicides is raising calls for the establishment of a more proactive social welfare program.

The latest apparent suicide of a 44-year-old man and his two children on Monday brought to the fore the stark reality of those who do not fall under government social protection. Welfare experts are demanding the government actively seek out people that have been overlooked by the existing system.

“If Korea’s welfare system was more mature, these tragedies would not happen so frequently,” Choi Jae-sung, a professor of social welfare at Yonsei University, told The Korea Herald. He said the current system fails to identify and help those in need.

Monday’s tragedy is just the latest. On Sunday, a woman in her 30s reportedly killed herself and her 4-year-old son, and last week a 61-year-old woman surnamed Park and her two daughters took their own lives because of their financial difficulties.

“In the case of Park’s family, the government should have known their only source of income had been cut off. The family stopped paying taxes and they did not collect benefits, which should not have gone unnoticed.”

One of the biggest problems with the social security system is that it mostly helps the people who actively seek benefits. Choi pointed out that in Korean society, receiving government subsidies is largely regarded as being at someone else’s mercy. This hinders the needy from applying for benefits, whether it is out of pride or simply because they do not want to bother anyone.

“It’s very sad because Park’s family must have thought applying for benefits would be a nuisance to other people,” said Kim Yun-yeong, an official from the civic group Korea People’s Solidarity Against Poverty.

Kim and delegates from other non-government groups held an emergency gathering on Tuesday and said the apparent holes in the existing welfare system must be patched.

Another issue, experts said, is that welfare programs often incorrectly categorize the poor as having sufficient income.

“The current system assigns ‘presumed income’ for people who are regarded as being able to work,” said Ryu Jung-soon, the president of the Korea Research and Consulting Institute on Poverty. Under the system, people aged 18-64 who have no serious physical problems are regarded as potential members of the workforce.

Huh Sun, a professor of social welfare at Soon Chun Hyang University said the Park family would probably have had a monthly income of 500,000 ($466) to 600,000 won even without working, making it impossible for them to get help from the government. Huh said Park’s elder daughter would have been considered able to work, despite her diabetes and chronic high blood pressure.

Park reportedly made little more than 1 million won. In total, the family’s income would have exceeded the minimum cost of living for subsidies which is 1.33 million won for a three-person household.

According to Huh, the government estimates there are about 1.17 million people cut of from the cut off from the welfare system.

To cope with the problem, the Ministry of Health and Welfare on Monday announced it will conduct a nationwide research project throughout March, looking for those who fall between the cracks in the existing welfare system.

Experts, however, raised doubts about the effects of the ministry’s measures. They said the government needs to set up a long-term system to keep better track of those in need while promoting the idea that it is the lawful right of a citizen to receive social benefits.

“(The government plans) may have effects for now, but the situation will be exactly the same this time next year,” professor Choi said. “The impromptu measures will not have a lasting impact. The fundamental structure of the welfare system should be revamped.”

By Yoon Min-sik (