[Viewpoint] Squeaky wheels get greasedEmergency rooms in developed countries attend to patients according to the seriousness of their conditions. In ours, that is not always the case. Patients bleeding and shrieking get the fastest attention. Help can be delayed to patients with quieter but life-threatening conditions, such as a heart attack or brain hemorrhage. Because they don’t make a scene, care often comes too late.
Our politics are more or less the same. Attention these days is being entirely focused on loud promises of more welfare obviously designed to please the clamorous and fickle digital and mobile voters. For those politicians, there is no bigger emergency than tending to those votes.
The opposition Democratic United Party pledges to hand out to each high school graduate 12 million won ($10,700) so they won’t feel left out of the tuition subsidies being offered to their luckier or more ambitious classmates going onto colleges and universities. Job hunters and self-employed youths are promised similar gifts in cash. After young men finish compulsory military service, a total of 6.3 million won will be awaiting them. An estimated 33 trillion won will be needed every year to fulfil these promises. But who cares?
The ruling party, which has renamed itself the Saenuri Party, is in an equally magnanimous mood. It promises free child day care as well as free breakfasts in every school classroom. It plans to boost conscripted soldiers’ monthly pay to 400,000 won. Young homemakers and 600,000 soldiers will naturally be tempted by these handouts. In fact, we may see young men forgetting about trying to find a job and rushing to join the military instead. The invisible hand of the market is starting to move as a result. Homemakers are registering their toddlers in day care facilities after hearing the news of the freebies on the way.
Something is going very wrong in our society. A year ago, a dead body was discovered on a mountain in Cheongju, North Chungcheong. An elderly male was burnt to death. He left a note on a tree branch saying he self-cremated because he could not afford a funeral. Witnesses said the man gathered stray branches and piled them in a pit. He wrote in his note that he brushed away the leaves to avoid causing a fire on the mountain. The state normally subsidizes 600,000 won for funerals for people without any close relatives. Upon hearing the news of the elderly man, a district head donated 1 million won from his own pocket to give him a decent funeral.
The basic principle of a welfare policy is to respect humanity. Welfare should not be given according to the loudness of people’s demands. It should be given to people in greatest need. Welfare experts say the priority should always be impoverished senior citizens and supporting high school education.
The suicide rate among our senior citizens is unrivaled among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries. Single senior citizens living alone without any means of support cannot even get a basic allowance from the state if they have any living siblings in their family record. They are more or less pushed to death. The self-cremation in Cheongju was a revealing look at the everyday lives of Korean senior citizens.
Free education at high schools is a more urgent issue than cutting university tuition. Middle schools, which the state has made mandatory, cost around 100,000 won a year, and when a student hits high school, the bill shoots up to 1.6 million won. For a poor family, that’s a significant sum. Parents with decent-paying jobs usually get high school subsidies from their companies. But irregular workers and low-income earners find it difficult to get their children through high school because of the cost.
Suicides among senior citizens can be considered a crime against a hidden part of our society. Unaffordable high school education can harm our society, too, by pushing girls into the sex trade and consigning an untold number of people to a life of part-time jobs. But we hear nothing in the welfare hoopla about caring for these members of our society. The seniors aren’t shouting on social networking services. High school kids can’t vote.
Eccentric presidential candidate Huh Kyung-young was unbeatable in coming up with bizarre welfare ideas during the campaign of five years ago. He offered to give every senior citizen 700,000 won a month, newlyweds 100 million won, 30 million won for every child’s birth and 300 million won to war veterans. He also promised to make electricity and mobile phone use free of charge. College education was to be free.
The politicians are busy sucking up to the loudest complainers. It’s the emergency room paradox. Life may not be easy for soldiers and homemakers in southern Seoul, but it isn’t that hard. Politicians are treating them like emergency cases. The question is justice, not welfare. Five years on, we shouldn’t ridicule Huh. At least he was honest, and fair, in his Quixotic, generous promises.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho