[VIEWPOINT]Escaping poverty’s snaresThe gap between rich and poor is increasing in Korea. Many more people in the middle class have fallen back into poverty rather than continuing to advance in wealth. Family disintegration caused by unemployment and economic problems stemming from credit card debts, divorce, separation or death, are making the lives of many children, in particular, very painful.
The number of children chained in the bonds of poverty is roughly one million, including children in households receiving national welfare payments; children from the next-poorest class whose income barely exceeds the minimum living expenses but who are still poor; children abandoned because of unemployment and family disintegration, and children who need care because they have single mothers who could not raise them. Those one million children are about 9 percent of the country’s total number of children, and the chilling prospect is that the number of disadvantaged children continues to increase. If the number continues to grow while Korea’s birthrate is dropping rapidly, there are disturbing implications for our future national development.
As children endure in poverty, they easily lose sight of their dreams. And when they are raised in poverty, they are also more exposed to disease. As they are denied the opportunities of getting private education, it is almost impossible for them to get out of poverty. Although poverty in Korea in the past was also grinding, almost everyone was poor and people overcame their difficulties together. But deprivation in the midst of abundance is another story, and such deprived children can too easily give up.
If overprotection can be the biggest problem for rich children, negligance is the problem that poor children face. While families, schools, and society neglect poor children starting from early age, they punish these children severely for running away from homes, committing petty crimes or other social deviancies. Reflecting the practice of “blaming the victims” in national policy, society excludes the poor socially and takes that social and economic discrimination for granted. Welfare is seen as pouring water into a leaky bucket, an the continuation of poverty from one generation to the next was condemned as the result of laziness of individuals and families.
But if the impoverished children are left alone, they are sure to increase the burden on the national welfare budget later in their lives. Therefore, it is not only moral but economically rational that we should find ways to prevent the transmission of poverty to the next generation. By freeing children from the bonds of poverty, we can bring up children who will play a needed role in society.
The government should take responsibility for this effort. It should carry out fundamental policies to free children from poverty, including the establishment of sound basic life security systems and jobs.
But it is more important to instill a spirit of self-reliance by expanding educational opportunities and the social safety net, such as health care, for poor children, not just giving them basic subsidies. In addition, the government should focus its programs on alleviating the rage and frustration of neglected poor children and encourage them to make efforts for a better life.
In addition to this national responsibility, society as a whole should establish an assistance system for poor children. Suppose that families from middle and upper classes form relationships with poor children. When better-off neighbors take care of needy children for a period of time, they can help those children grow.
Schools are no exception. We should also set up the school social welfare system like those in many other countries. A school social welfare system can help solve the problem of unequal education by linking teachers, students, families and local communities. Also, because such school-based programs could deal with the problem of maladjustment, including school violence, to promote student welfare, they could be very effective in solving the broader problems of poor children.
But the most important need is simply to take an interest in the problems of poor children. We should not behave as some politicians do, showing concern for poor children for a short time during election campaigns. We should come closer to the poor children and teach them how precious each moment in their life is. They need to make plans for their future despite their poverty, even though they had no other choice but to live their young lives in a state of uncertainty.
Now is the time to shine candles everywhere across the county to free children from the bondage of poverty.
* The writer is a professor of social welfare at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Cho Heung-shik