[Viewpoint] Fertility policy still has flaws

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[Viewpoint] Fertility policy still has flaws

A few years ago, the “low birthrate and aging society” was feared to pose a serious problem for the future of Korea, but now the dangers have arrived on our doorsteps.

The issue came under the policy spotlight in 2003 and has been debated and studied for more than seven years now.

But as demographic statistics show, little progress has been made in the area. The government has recently taken on greater urgency in dealing with the problem and has announced new measures to address the issue with more immediacy.

Instead of vague and ambiguous investments, the government is targeting specifics such as the dilemma faced by working women in trying to balance between family and work.

But the government’s attempts to deal with the problem have failed to convince and assure the society. First of all, the public is skeptical about programs aimed to encourage young couples to have more children.

And secondly, the government has found a lack of commitment in promoting social equality.

The feasibility and outcome of the program is being greeted with great doubts because of inadequate efforts to address the structural polarization of society.

The government’s recent plan is similar to that of the Hamilton Project, a research effort led by one of Washington’s oldest think tanks, the Brookings Institution, which was aimed at developing public policies to strengthen the long-term economic prospects of the U.S.

In the late years of the George W. Bush administration, the liberal group attacked the conservative government for deepening wealth polarization and urged more government efforts to reduce income inequality.

The think tank promoted the idea of placing equal priority on economic growth and welfare.

Such a commitment to both present and future tasks to improve prosperity and competitiveness while addressing the polarization problem helped to establish a renewed focus on growth and welfare in the American society.

The Korean government has recently turned passionate about being seen as “pro-working class.”

But its welfare policies to address this demographic neglected to consider the structural gap between the working class and people who are more rich.

One example is the increase in the allowance for parental leave. There is already a monthly allowance of 500,000 won for parental leave, regardless of income conditions.

The revised plan would increase the payment to 40 percent of monthly income or 1 million won, whatever is higher. Subsidies for parental leave will nearly double from the current level.

But the problem is that at the end of the day the allowances will benefit more couples with stable jobs and high income. Working couples with low income and unstable jobs - those who normally can’t afford or think of taking leave - will get little to none of the parental leave allowance.

This example suggests wealth polarization can spill over to the distribution of welfare benefits. We cannot generalize and criticize the new measures before they are applied and it is understandable that the government had few other options in experimenting with new solutions after the earlier allowance program failed to boost the birthrate.

But it is a pity that we have to question whether the government knows where and how to start addressing the essential social problem of evenly distributing growth benefits to every corner of the society. With demographic trends becoming an imminent risk to our society, we must seek out feasible solutions based on thorough awareness of our fundamental problems.

We should try to fix demographic issues with eyes set on dealing with structural polarization.

The government must try to encourage family planning with the awareness that parents must pay private tutoring costs that are 10 times more than public education fees. That or have their children be placed at a disadvantage.

*The writer is a professor of public administration at Pai Chai University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Chung Youn-chung
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