Welfare costs weigh on voters’ appetites
Fluctuating public opinion and the ebb and the flow of the tide once again prove that troubles come and go but never end. The debate over welfare seemed to have been concluded with a complete victory for “universal welfare” over “selective welfare.” The climax was the referendum on free school lunch in Seoul in 2011. Then-Mayor Oh Se-hoon put his job on the line, but the free-lunch proposal was rejected amid a low turnout of voters. Oh resigned that August and was considered a “public enemy” even within his Saenuri Party during the following three election campaigns for mayor, the Assembly and the presidency. In May, 2012, he left for the United Kingdom to study and returned home after a brief stay in Shanghai.
Before Oh left for Europe, I met with him in private. He said, “My thinking was muddled, so I focused on playing tennis, only to get severe back pain.” As he began treatment for the pain, he began studying Chinese. When I asked if he hoped to return to politics, he smiled and said, “A politician should be wanted by the people, but I am no better than a dead body. It feels like everything has been swept away in a gust of wind.” The pain of the rejection, though, obviously had not been swept away.
Local government leaders complain that they cannot afford the child care budget, and Gyeonggi Province recently cut the budget for free lunches from the supplementary budget bill. Incheon Metropolitan City gave up a plan to expand free school meals to middle schools. While some argue that these moves were made in consideration of the local elections next year, the understanding has spread that welfare comes at a cost. Critics are already concerned about free high school education, one of the election promises of the Park Geun-hye administration. Opinion polls show that only 40 percent of voters are willing to pay more taxes in return for more welfare spending, and politicians, always sensitive to opinion trends, haven’t failed to notice the ebbing tide. The second round of “universal welfare vs. selective welfare” has begun.
While the welfare issue is complicated, it is essentially a math problem. If someone gets free benefits, someone has to pay for it. More money can be raised or funds diverted from other projects. The latest trend may be the result of making vain promises and hiding simple math.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By NOH JAE-HYUN