[Viewpoint]Strengthen the social safety net

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[Viewpoint]Strengthen the social safety net

President Lee Myung-bak’s approval rating is dropping sharply. One of the reasons for this decline can be found in the welfare policy, which lacks consistency and transparency. President Lee gave the people high expectations by promising rosy welfare policies when he was running for the presidency.

He emphasized a “stepping stone welfare policy giving hope to people’s lives,” which would provide custom-made services, stage by stage from birth till death, according to the needs of the people.

The policy attracted people’s attention because it was an active solution and better than that of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, if it were to be realized as promised.

However, the strong will to implement the policy gradually faded after the inauguration of the new administration. Health, Welfare and Family Affairs Minister Kim Soung-yee took a backward step by saying, “The new welfare policy means providing jobs to the people who can work and extending a helping hand to them when they are in need.”

This means that the government would guarantee minimum welfare services only to those who have no ability to work. Therefore, the rest of the people should stand on their own.

Less than a month after that remark, the welfare policy receded even further. When the Ministry of Strategy and Finance made public the guidelines for next year’s budget, it announced, “To the extent it does not decrease welfare benefits, the expenditure on the welfare sector will be made more prudently.”

This actually means a reduction of the welfare budget. In just three months since the launching of the new administration, the welfare policy has changed completely, from expansion to reduction.

The change was reflected in the field immediately. Recently, the maternity and newborn baby aid project, which is operated by local autonomous organizations with financial support from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, closed down due to lack of funds. This is a significant retreat, undermining in that it was the first stage in the stepping stone welfare policy.

This leads to speculation that the next stage of services will be reduced or will totally collapse. Actually, some child-care services such as the premature infants and abnormal infant medical fee support project have also shut down recently.

Grass roots people are watching the government nervously because even the social safety net, on which their livelihoods depend, is weakening. Meanwhile, life is getting harder due to worsening domestic and international economic conditions. The problem is that this sense of unease is spreading quickly through the entire nation.

According to a survey made by a media outlet, 53.4 percent of the people said “strengthening the social safety net by restructuring the welfare system” was the most urgent task of the 18th National Assembly. And 60.9 percent of the respondents are middle class people whose monthly household income is between 2.51 million ($2,468) and 4 million won.

This can be interpreted as reflecting what people who shout out slogans, such as “No privatization of medical insurance” and “Pension reform,” at candlelight vigils are worried about. The government considers this evidence that the original focus of the candlelight vigils, the import of U.S. beef, is lost, but these worries were there from the beginning.

The government has acknowledged that the economy is declining. There is a high chance that the lives of people will get even harder. Now, the government has to present a new blueprint for a welfare policy that corresponds to the changing situation.

Since the creation of jobs, the biggest promise of the government, is becoming more difficult, it should come up with an alternative.

Only by doing so can the government put the unease of the people to rest. There is an observation that the government, which emphasizes economic growth, will reduce welfare benefits even further.

There is even a prediction that welfare policies introduced by the Roh Moo-hyun administration, such as the long-term medical treatment insurance system for seniors, basic livelihood guarantee system and the Earned Income Tax Credit system, will be reconsidered.

The people want to hear explanations and assurances from the government on such rumors, but the Ministry of Health and Welfare keeps it smouth shut.

The welfare minister reacted passively to the demands from the economic ministries to scale down welfare projects, saying, “Our people are suffering from a ‘welfare illness.’”

The post of senior secretary for social policy at the Blue House, who coordinates welfare policies, has been left vacant for over a month. The president should secure officials in charge of welfare affairs as soon as possible and try hard to win back the hearts and minds of the people.

What the people want right now is honesty and cooperation from the government. If the policies it has promised can not be executed, it must explain the changes in the situation and ask for people’s understanding.

The people know that not all public pledges can be realized.

If the administration continues to change its words without clear justification, it will end up in the mire where it will lose control of its own fate.

Complaints against the welfare policy that emerged in the candlelight vigils are heating up to the boiling point.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lim Bong-soo
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