Porous social safety netA woman in her 60s who could no longer go on working after an arm injury committed suicide along with her two grown daughters. The three women lived together in a rented basement flat, muddling along with part-time jobs after the entire family fell into debt when the father underwent extensive cancer treatment and recently died.
Their tragic end sheds some disquieting truths about the dire living conditions of the poor in our society. The mother worked as a server in a restaurant and the youngest in a convenience store to pay for the medical bills that accrued from the eldest daughter’s treatments and the debt left by the father. But when the primary breadwinner hurt her arm, the three women gave up.
Their story is an example of how extreme poverty cannot be overcome solely through individual efforts in a ruthless society that corners people with poor credit. The tale exposes the inadequacy of our social security systems.
Poverty in our society is getting severe. Korea’s poverty rate ranks sixth among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. One-sixth of Koreans do not even earn 10 million won ($9,368) a year. Debt takes up 25 percent of the meager earnings of the bottom 20 percent.
Even as the poor slip deeper into debt and poverty, society overall seems indifferent. The country looks well off with the top 1 percent accounting for 16.6 percent of total income and the top 20 percent of earners representing half of total income - a ratio that is the second highest among OECD countries. But the issue of poverty hardly ever makes an appearance on the nation’s political or social agenda.
The story of the three women is a typical modern tragedy. The father falls ill and the family members seek credit to finance his treatment and care. They become credit delinquents and cannot find decent jobs. The poor eventually face a dead end when one of the family members falls ill. They have not even applied for basic social security, as the impoverished tend to be self-conscious. Administrators must seek them out and offer the benefits to which they are entitled. Most of all, we should pay closer attention to the plight of the poor and show compassion to the hard-up people in our neighborhood.
JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 1, Page 30