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[Editorial] Support singletons

New state initiatives in welfare, tax, housing needed to reflect changes in family structure

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 15, 2023 - 05:30

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The South Korean government has long pushed for policies aimed at supporting what is considered a typical form of families with more than two members: two parents and a child or two.

But it’s time to acknowledge that such a traditional concept does not work any longer, as over one third of Korean households are single-person households, and the share of these smallest of family units has been on a steady rise in recent years.

According to Statistics Korea, 7.5 million Korean nationals were living alone in 2022, accounting for 34.5 percent of the 21.7 million households in the country. The percentage of single-person households, which stood at 28.6 percent in 2017, surpassed the 30 percent mark in 2019 and continued to go up to reach 33.4 percent in 2021.

Experts project that the share of single-person households will reach 40 percent by 2050, fueling concerns about the lack of welfare, housing and tax policies tailored for people struggling to make a living alone.

The trend is already unstoppable. With quality jobs hard to find and housing costs prohibitively high, young people tend to get married at a later age, or give up on finding a partner and forming a family altogether.

As the average lifespan increases, more older adults are living alone after their spouses die. The share of single-person households among women in their 70s was 27.9 percent, the highest among all groups surveyed, followed by men aged between 30 and 39 at 22 percent. These single-households are likely to face challenging living conditions that often require the government’s welfare support.

The average income of single-person households was 30.1 million won ($23,200) per year in 2022, which is around 45 percent of the average of all households. Those living alone witnessed a steady increase in housing costs, food and medical bills, with their average debt rising to 28.5 million won.

Despite such unfavorable living conditions, the Korean government shows no sign of providing active support for single-person households. Housing policy, for instance, is firmly based on the four-person households, with the size of apartment complexes set at 85 square meters -- a standard that was set in 1973 when the share of four-person households accounted for 65 percent and single-person families made up just 4 percent.

In other words, the country’s official housing policy has not changed at all over the past 50 years, with an incredibly rigid structure that resulted in a serious shortage of smaller apartments, and pushed their prices unnecessarily higher. The extra burden in housing costs is in fact being shouldered by single-person households.

Other welfare policies are similarly suited for four-person households. The national pension scheme, for example, offers additional payment in accordance with the number of minors and older adults in the same family. National health insurance also puts those living alone at a disadvantage, since they do not have other family members to share the premium.

Critics point out that the government has been indifferent to single-person households when mapping out welfare policies, largely because their focus is to grapple with the world’s lowest birth rate and encourage the formation of families with children. The total fertility rate, referring to the average number of babies that a woman is projected to have during her lifetime, was 0.81 in 2021, and hit a record low of 0.7 in the second quarter of this year.

Of course, there is nothing particularly wrong with a government policy that encourages people to get married and have more children by proposing more tax benefits and advantages in housing. One caveat to offering more social benefits to single-person households is that it could have an adverse effect on policies geared toward the typical form of family.

But it is time for the government to change its policy direction given that the share of single-person households is going up each year, and to start providing more financial and welfare support to those living alone and struggling with poverty.