Let’s focus on ‘how,’ not ‘if’On Aug. 24, 2011, the Seoul city administration held a referendum asking residents whether they agreed with a plan to provide free lunches to all students in every public school in the capital. Second-term Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon opposed the universal program and staked his seat on the successful outcome of the referendum. The result was a humiliating defeat for Oh; the referendum was declared invalid and the votes were not counted because the turnout did not reach the legally required one-third of eligible voters. The mayor stepped down, as promised, just 13 months into his second term, and he received a mixed evaluation. Some said he was a brave man of conviction, while others called him obsessive and arrogant.
Since the referendum, public opinion has hardened, and free school meals became inevitable. Today, 95 percent of all elementary schools nationwide provide free meals for all students; 75 percent of middle schools do the same.
The Gyeonggi Provincial government recently announced that it could no longer pay for free school meals. The administrations in Incheon, South Gyeongsang, Daegu and North Gyeongsang also have dropped plans to expand the programs next year to include middle schools. Other local governments are also reexamining their programs. The sustainability of the public welfare program is being questioned again. This free school lunch program, in just its second year, has reignited the debate about whether universal welfare programs are possible without universal tax hikes.
People think today’s debate focuses on a different controversy than the one two years ago. In 2011, the question was whether we should or should not provide free lunches for all. Now the debate is whether we have the necessary money. In 2011, it was a black-or-white issue - you either agreed or disagreed. Few people understood that the mayor was actually arguing for an incremental trial of the universal program to see if it could work. The essence of the problem is the same as two years ago. We still generally agree that a free school meal program is a good idea. But we have no consensus on whether it should be carried out all at once, or carried out incrementally, while we figure out how to pay for it.
The reason we are agonizing over the same matter is simple. We didn’t base the program on solid welfare principles and a social consensus. No one is so naive as to think “free benefits” literally means free. Somebody pays. The universal free school meal program blotted out this cruel reality. The outcry by local governments, under the increased welfare burden, underscore the reality that social welfare benefits are not possible without a universal tax levy. I personally believe we should stop using the word “free.” “Tax-funded” or “mandatory supply” of school meals is more correct.
Individuals sometimes have to carry the burden and share the pain to sustain “us.” But when a welfare program takes form, the debate heats up. And we all turn selfish when we are asked to pay more in taxes or when tax spending must be modified. Protecting our own interests comes first. What will determine the result at the end of the day is how much more in taxes we must pay and what additional sacrifices we may face. Taxes are never willingly paid, but nonetheless they can be “less resisted.” Only social welfare based on social consensus can last.
Deliberations in a democracy are aimed at an agreement. That spirit should be the seed for sustainable social welfare. Sincere pleas and persuasion can lessen resistance to a higher tax burden. When welfare programs are designed according to financial affordability and economic prospects, they are less likely to damage public finances. Welfare programs should be mapped out after taking account of our circumstances, such as the needs of an aging society and future unification and security costs. When sustainability is considered, the issue of “free for all” or “blanket” won’t matter. We hope to see a welfare system that evolves in a clear, legitimate and progressive way.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of public administration at Korea National University of Transportation.
By Yim Dong-wook