[NOTEBOOK]How to alleviate poverty?A few days ago, I met a childhood friend. He was so smart and kind that he had always been the leader of the class. I was very glad to see him after nearly a decade. We had lunch together, but his situation made it difficult for me to eat. After graduating from a popular department at a first-class university, he joined a securities company. I thought he was doing well at the company, but he was not.
A few years ago, he invested money for a customer, but the share prices plunged, causing a large loss. The customer threatened to hold him responsible for the loss, so he had to sell his house in order to compensate the customer for the loss. That wasn’t enough, so he quit his job and gave all of his severance payment to the customer.
After losing his job, he eked out an existence with credit cards. As his debts grew, he became insolvent and couldn’t borrow money from any financial institutions. Because of the stigma of being an insolvent credit card holder and because of a bad reference from his former employer, he couldn’t get a job.
But some time ago, with a former co-worker’s help, he managed to find a job at a small company and now earns 600,000 won ($550) a month. He lives in a rented house in the suburbs of Seoul. Last year, his daughter gained admission to a prestigious university, but he couldn’t send her to the school because he could not afford the financial burden. His daughter studied for another year on her own and was admitted to the same university as a scholarship student this time. Saying this, he cried loudly. I was very sad and sorry for my friend.
Our per capita national income is said to exceed $10,000, but I wonder why so many people are leading a hard life. There is an old saying that even kings cannot relieve poverty, and I wonder then what will become of the future of the 4 million insolvent credit card holders.
According to a recent JoongAng Ilbo report, as many as 27.1 percent of the people consider themselves as belonging to the lower class. If the 45.9 percent who consider themselves lower middle class are added to this figure, those who consider themselves “below middle class” amount to three out of four.
As various surveys show, we should concentrate on healing the wounds resulting from the conflict between rich and poor, the most serious problem of our society. If that were the case, poor people would at least be able to maintain their dignity as human beings, and the rich would be able to enjoy their wealth properly. Specific remedies will not come easily. But it is hardly recommendable to take things away from the “haves” and distribute them to the “have-nots.” Since there has been talk about a “wealth tax,” Koreans’ money has flowed overseas and real estate prices in Los Angeles have soared. When only poor people are left in Korea, how can we cure poverty?
A Swedish-style solution, in which the government acknowledges the governance system of conglomerates so that they can operate their businesses freely while it collects a large amount of tax from them to be used for welfare, has gained strong support lately. Also, as Park Sang-yong, a professor at Yonsei University proposed, another popular solution is to set aside a portion of the net profits of companies as a fund for severance payments when business is good and to save both the companies and employees by distributing the fund to laid-off employees when business slows.
For both parties to survive, they need to understand each other, and one party needs to yield to the other first. In this regard, a story I heard from an acquaintance recently touched my heart.
He said: “People talk about conservatism or liberalism, but I think there should be more liberal haves and conservative have-nots for us to survive. Conservatism is often perceived as the tendency of haves to protect their vested interests and progressivism as the tendency of have-nots to change things. But this way only leads to confrontation. Wouldn’t the world become better when they think of a way of coexistence in which the haves are not complacent with their vested interests (liberal haves) and have-nots acknowledge the vested interests of the haves (conservative have-nots)?”
* The writer is the industrial news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Min Byung-kwan