Rigid welfare rules result in a ragged safety net

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Rigid welfare rules result in a ragged safety net

Applicants for the government’s welfare program for basic living expenses face a daunting screening process, and some people have failed the means test because their children have the means to support them - whether or not they are willing to and whether or not the children have liquid assets.

A 76-year-old man, Lim, in Yesan County, South Chungcheong, lives entirely on his monthly basic senior pension of 96,800 won ($90). That pension doesn’t have a means test. It only requires a recipient not be in the top 30 percent of elderly income earners.

Although Lim receives no support from any of his five children, he could not qualify for the means-tested basic living payments. His second son owns an apartment in Incheon, but has been an invalid for four years and has no income. The other four children, the government check concluded, were not able to support him.

When JoongAng Ilbo reporters arrived at Lim’s house on Tuesday, it was very cold. “I haven’t turned on the heat for a long time,” Lim said. “I only use the electric blanket sometimes.”

He has trouble communicating; he suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and remains depressed since his wife committed suicide two years ago. Back pain prevents him from working as a farm hand, as he once did.

“When a family member commits suicide, it’s a sign that the rest of the family is also vulnerable,” said Park Jin-ha, an official from the Chungcheongnam-do Mental Health Center. “I’m afraid he may kill himself because his health failed after his wife died and he is now almost destitute.”

The biggest obstacle to receiving that stipend is the standard citing people who are primarily obliged to support another person. Parents cannot qualify for means-tested welfare benefits, no matter how poor they are, if their children are living above the poverty standard. About 20,000 people are screened out of the basic living expenses welfare program every year. Though the benchmark has been eased somewhat, Lim still falls into the ineligible category.

He can be designated as a recipient only if the price of his son’s apartment drops below the benchmark value. Otherwise, the son is required to sell the apartment and support his father, which is unlikely because the son is also seriously ill.

Technology is another obstruction to people in need. The Integrated Social Welfare Management System, launched in 2010, is making the process more transparent, but it is also applying standards more strictly and impersonally.

Kim, 75, lives with her 20-year-old grandson who suffers from leukemia. She had received basic living expense payments from the government for more than a decade but was dropped last year because the system found that her son had an income as a day laborer. Kim’s grandson had to stop receiving stem cell transplants, free under the welfare program but that cost 20 million to 30 million won if not subsidized.

“Those who are not very needy are receiving basic living expenses, but we are not, despite our extreme poverty,” said Kim’s daughter.

After the program, “Haengbok E-eum” (“happy connection” in English), was launched in 2012, more than 620,000 people were dropped from welfare coverage and only about 420,000 were allowed to join, lowering the number of recipients to 1.35 million at the end of last year. “If the system only looks for unfair welfare benefits but neglects the destitute poor, it would be not ‘Hangbok E-eum’ but ‘Bulheang E-eum’ (‘unhappy connection’),” said Kim Mi-gon, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.

Other developed countries’ welfare programs focus more on the living conditions of recipients rather than on those of their children; Koreans have to prove that the relationships between parents and children have been severed to do so. Many people abandon their applications because they would have to ask their children to agree to an income check.

“The standards must be loosened, and more discretion should be given to the civil servants who are dealing with applications,” said Choi Young-jun, a professor at Korea University’s Department of Public Administration.

Noh Dae-myoung, head of the Research Center for Basic Health Security at the health institute, had a somewhat different suggestion.

“Lowering the standards and covering more people would be a financial burden on the government, so [the authorities] should focus first on medical aid and housing, the primary needs of the poor,” he said.

BY PARK HYUN-YOUNG AND KIM HYE-MI [bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]

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