[OUTLOOK]Am I my neighbor’s keeper? Yes“Mom, I don’t want to die.” One can still hear these words. But there is nothing we can do now. A-ra, Yun-sang and Eun-seo are no longer with us. Many people are lamenting the deaths of these three children, who were thrown over the 15th story balcony of a building by their mother, who then committed suicide. “Had I known they were in such a financially difficult situation, I would have helped them in any way I could.” Many of their neighbors have expressed this feeling.
This incident reminds me of something that happened some 20 years ago. My wife and I were taking our daughter out for a walk. My daughter asked me, “Dad, our teacher told us to help the needy. But where are the needy?” She was right. There are no desperate people like the three children and their mother around me. The needy are only in the newspapers and the television news. That is why once these people appear on television they get waves of compassionate help. Does this mean that there are no needy people around us if we do not see them in the news? A-ra, who was in the first grade, could not go with her class for an outing to the swimming pool because she did not have 3,600 won ($3) to pay the fee. Her teacher said it was only after A-ra’s death that she learned what difficult circumstances A-ra’s family had been in. The family could not receive health insurance benefits so the children could not even go to the hospital when they were seriously ill.
If we make this a social issue, we have a problem caused by urbanization and economic discrimination. Living in apartments, we do not bother to find out how our neighbors are faring. The rich live among the rich, so there is little chance of them having a poor neighbor. Those who do have poor neighbors are poor themselves and therefore do not usually have the means to offer help.
That is why people say we need to develop a welfare state and that we should have a social safety net. They believe that once this is achieved, the government will solve all the problems of poverty. They hope the government will take responsibility for all those hard issues concerning the nation’s poor and needy.
The United States spends billions of dollars annually on the poor. However, instead of making the problem of poverty go away, politicians, bureaucrats and social workers, who claim to be working on the problem, have multiplied. This is called the poverty industry. People who receive welfare subsidies grow more attached to them like smokers become addicted to nicotine. The disease soon spreads. Those who had worked hard now want to live on subsidies. This means the government needs more money, so it raises taxes. This, in turn, hampers the growth of the country and compromises the economy. It is because of such experiences that few countries now believe in the myth of a welfare state that provides “from the cradle to the grave.”
The problem with a welfare state is not only economic. It changes the collective belief and culture. That is, it becomes the system’s fault that an individual is poor. It becomes the government’s responsibility to take care of an individual’s financial problems. Thus, the work ethic and goal of self-reliance soon disappear.
A-ra’s mother and father tried hard to succeed. The father went from one construction site to another around the country after losing his job, sending what little money he earned home. The mother worked in restaurants from time to time but could not leave home for too long because of her 3-year-old son, Eun-seo. On that fateful day, she dressed the children in newly-washed clothes. She was that proud. Had someone just given her hope and encouragement, we would not have had to see them leave us.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration is the most progressive one we have had since our liberation. It won power by claiming to represent the weak and poor. However, the weak and poor are dying under this administration. Were this administration truly progressive, it would have sent someone to the funeral of the mother and her three children. That would have been a sign of remorse and a sense of responsibility on the government’s part. The government, however, was too busy cat-fighting with other politicians, flinging accusations of conspiracy. A-ra’s family was neither their friend nor neighbor. It was only votes, something to be used to gain power.
If politicians do not wipe away the tears of the weak and poor, who will be the genuine neighbors for them? They are none other than the ordinary people -- us. Maybe we cannot dry the tears but we could at least try not to make them flow. The more I boast about my money, my prestige, my power, the more people will get hurt by them. A-ra’s mother must have decided to do what she did because she was hurt by the people around her. She did not have the courage to go on living among all those boastful people. We need to make a new vow. We must make sure that such a terrible tragedy does not repeat itself. We need eyes with which we can see our needy neighbors. The more we neglect our duties to our neighbors and leave them for the government to take care of, the more powerful the government will become. This, in turn, means that our freedom will decrease and we will be denying an inherent right through our negligence.
* The writer is chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Chang-keuk