[Outlook]Welfare reform that works

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[Outlook]Welfare reform that works

President Lee Myung-bak declared that he would make people’s lives more comfortable. This is undoubtedly good news. He also said things need to be reformed for this to happen.
Reforms are carried out when problems have become so urgent that drastic measures are needed. His social welfare reform plan, however, still remains vague. He says that he wants to pursue so-called pre-emptive welfare to prevent people from falling into poverty in the first place.
He also says that social welfare will be provided to those who really need it so that there is no waste in the national budget.
Another plan is to introduce a health management system through which people can take care of their health on a regular basis.
People have to spend a lot of money on medical treatment when they are diagnosed with disease, which can be too late. In the new system people won’t have to spend so much money for medical care.
Other plans include helping people with bad credit histories recover their credit rating and making sure that there are no underprivileged people. But such an ideal social welfare policy can only be realized when there is hardly any discrimination or class difference in society.
In 1996, the United States enacted social welfare reform. The key tenet was not giving welfare benefits to those who don’t work. Policy makers believed that if people automatically received welfare benefits, it was a deterrent to working. The new system was designed to give benefits to those with jobs, which would motivate people to work.
The white middle-class eagerly welcomed the plan because they thought they paid unreasonable taxes to provide welfare to those dependent on the government. Welfare recipients were portrayed as lazy, incompetent and shameless.
Is that really so? The problem is that there are people who work hard but are still poor.
In a society where salaries and work benefits vary greatly from job to job, there are an increasing number of poor people who work very hard but still have difficulty making ends meet.
In modern capitalistic societies, low-paid workers are increasing in the service sector. They work long hours but get paid less than people in other sectors. Their jobs often do not offer enough medical and education benefits, which increases their chances of becoming even more underprivileged.
These types of people are increasing in Korea. Women who work in restaurants, clean office buildings or work other low-paying part-time jobs often work for more than 12 hours a day. They work harder than most but still have no money left to educate their children. Many young men who are healthy and don’t have to support a family have no money left to save. Many don’t go to see the doctor even when they are sick because they are afraid of losing their jobs if they are absent from work for several hours. Many people can’t afford the huge one-time deposit, called key money, needed to rent an apartment, so they keep moving from one place to another.
The cost of certain certificates and licenses keeps increasing, which makes it hard to get a job when one has no money. An increasing number of people get fired without notice and job stability is very low. More people are moving toward the lower rungs of the economic ladder rather than the upper ones. So the government must work to increase job stability and fairness in the hiring and firing process at companies. This is as important as creating more jobs. Making sure people have job security, reasonable pay and mutually respectful labor-management relationships can be considered a type of reform as well.
U.S. welfare reform was designed with good intentions but it was criticized for overlooking the process of how people fall into poverty and become trapped. The reform plan blamed individual’s laziness and dependency for poverty. It offended people who work hard but remain poor.
The Korean government must think seriously about how to assist those who remain poor even though they put in long working hours. A welfare policy must be created with the idea of taking care of people. A logic that emphasizes efficiency in the name of restoring the economy can easily label poor people as incompetent members of society. The government must accept that there is nothing wrong with providing welfare after people fall into poverty. This is more important than deciding which people are qualified to receive welfare.
If we agree that welfare should absorb and reduce the damage inflicted by an insecure and harsh market economy, anybody qualifies to be a welfare recipient.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Hyun-mi
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