The ones desperately needing welfare help

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The ones desperately needing welfare help

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Park Jeong-su, 58, of Yongsan, Seoul, who had his benefits cut, has eked out a living by begging. By Kim Sang-seon


While the country’s main opposition Democratic Party pledges to institute free welfare services, including controversial free school lunches, the reality is that there is an urgent need for financial support for people who are struggling to survive.

There are 1 million Koreans in the low-income bracket who cannot receive government aid because their children are grown. Support for disabled people is still quite limited. And even though reports show a decrease in the number of elderly people who die of hunger, the problem remains.

With help from the Korean Social Policy Institute and the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, the JoongAng Ilbo examined the plight of people who are in desperate need of financial support from the government.

One such man is Gwon (a pseudonym he created for this report), an 82-year-old who lives alone in a basement room in Gwanak District, Seoul. His wife died four years ago and his son-in-law is in the military.

Gwon gets up at 7 a.m. and has breakfast if he’s lucky enough to have some food around, but it is a meal he skips most of the time. A lunchbox gets delivered every day from a community welfare center but he only eats half of it, leaving the rest for dinner.

When a JoongAng Ilbo reporter visited Gwon’s home, his half-eaten lunch was covered with an old newspaper. Gwon, who has trouble with his digestion, often mixes rice with water and eats it with pickled shrimp. He hardly cooks.

Lunches don’t get delivered on Sundays, because the government doesn’t fund the delivery fees, but the center delivers two meals on Saturdays. Gwon survives on just over 200,000 won ($179) a month - 90,000 won in veterans’ benefits, 90,000 won from his pension, 100,000 won as a basic living subsidy and pocket money from his daughter.

But Gwon uses all of the money to pay for phone, gas, electricity and water bills and he survives the winter with an electric pad because of the high cost of his heating bills.

Another man named Park Jeong-su, 58, was dropped from the basic living subsidy program after receiving financial support from his family once when he was sick two years ago, because if a recipient has any contact with grown-up children who earn money, the government regards the recipient as having a provider and cuts off the funds. After two years of eking out a living by begging, Park recently called welfare officials for help. Park is also disabled, with one of his legs barely functioning.

By begging around the neighborhood, Park receives about 20,000 won per day, which helps on his monthly rent fee of 150,000 won. Since losing his job during the Asian financial crisis in 1997, Park has barely managed. He has slept on the streets from time to time for more than 10 years. Park has had no contact with his wife and two daughters since he lost his job and became a person who relies on a basic living allowance.

But when Park collapsed from a stroke two years ago, he had to contact his family for help and his benefits were cut off. Now, the only aid Park receives from the government is 30,000 won a month in disability benefits.

In fact, Park recently divorced his wife by mutual agreement to meet the requirements for government support. But even that is unlikely to ensure that Park will receive more aid because he has two daughters who work. Despite the fact that they provide no support, it will prevent him from receiving further assistance.

“I am too ashamed to face my daughters and ask for help. It’s really hard for them to make ends meet these days,” Park said.

Another person, Lee Yeon-gyeong, 20, is blind and studies at the Department of Special Education at Daegu University. She lives in a school dormitory and doesn’t have an income.

Last year, Lee applied for disability benefits but was rejected because her family had 18,289 won more in assets than the 500,000 won per month that would have made her eligible- her parents own a house in Seoul worth about 300 million won and own an automobile. If she had met the requirement, she could have received 20,000 won per month.

Lee was going to use the money to help with the 80,000 won a month it costs to hire a personal assistant.

For now, Lee gets a small amount of pocket money from her parents, which goes straight to paying for transportation costs, food for herself and food for her guide dog.

“I don’t understand why the government applies the parent’s property income to the child’s income,” said Lee’s father, Lee Gang-jo, 53.

“I think the welfare budget has to be used efficiently for those who really need the aid,” he added.

This year, 56 percent of severely disabled adults, a total of 326,000 people, are receiving disability benefits, with a minimum of 20,000 won to maximum of 150,000 won per month.

The government estimates that it would need 5.7 trillion won to support all of the neediest Koreans.


By Special Reporting Team [enational@joongang.co.kr]
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