Give us safety and subsidies

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Give us safety and subsidies

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Joo Eun-sun

Potential hazards in some school grounds have been highlighted in the media amid heightened safety awareness following the disastrous sinking of the Sewol ferry.

Children spend every day in dangerously old and unsafe facilities, yet the government has turned a blind eye. This is ominously similar to the case of the sunken ship, which occurred because of the negligence of its supervisors.

And concerns about school safety have now turned into criticism against the appropriation of education welfare spending. Critics say that necessary upgrades to school buildings have been put off because the budget is being ploughed into free school lunches and day-care programs for toddlers, which were introduced in 2011.

Even if we agree that the budget is being allocated inappropriately, does it really mean we should reverse the course of education welfare?

First of all, it is wrong and misleading to place education safety and welfare on competing grounds. One should not come at the expense of the other. To drop one for the other only underscores that our education infrastructure is poor both in terms of safety and welfare standards. School facilities have become risky and unsafe, not because of increased welfare benefits but because authorities have simply neglected safety all this time.

The safety and welfare of children and teenagers should not be a matter of choice. Both must be guaranteed, and they should not be addressed separately. Society as a whole must contribute to ensure the equality and sufficiency of our children’s security, nutrition, education and care.

Second, upgrades in school infrastructures to meet necessary safety standards would not be possible even with a scale-down on school meals or other welfare subsidies. One newspaper reported that to make all kindergarten, elementary, middle and high school buildings completely safe, the country needs about 15 trillion won ($14.7 billion) to 20 trillion won. The budget amount is similar to the one for the mass-scale project of renovating the country’s four major rivers. But the urgent need to overhaul old school facilities cannot be compared to dredging riverbeds.

If President Park Geun-hye is serious about rebuilding the nation to be safer and more reliable, she must prove herself by revamping policy priorities and constructing a paradigm more oriented toward social safety and welfare.

Third, our country’s economic size allows increases in spending to improve the quality of both education welfare and safety. It is an outdated concept to insist that we must choose one over the other because of money problems. Korea’s spending on safety and education welfare lags behind many other comparable countries, which suggests our country has the means. We haven’t learned anything from the Sewol calamity if we continue to prioritize economic growth at the expense of public safety and welfare. Without ensuring life’s basic needs - safety and welfare - growth is meaningless.

To argue for a reduction in education welfare programs by citing a lack of funding to upgrade school facilities is not sensible. Sure, the conservatives may be tempted to retract the free school meal program that led to their disastrous defeat in the last midterm elections by highlighting its negative aspects, but holding children’s safety and welfare hostage for political gain is pitiful. It is a repetition of the negligence in accountability.

The administrators and politicians all have to ask themselves if governance and public services have been devoted to improving people’s lives. The government must try to find ways to improve safety in schools without sacrificing a welfare program that has only just begun to take root. Instead of trying to quench public protests on the streets, the government should sit down and seriously debate on what regulations must be strengthened in order to fulfil its responsibility toward ensuring public safety and welfare. It should then outline for the public updated policies and spending plans.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 21, Page 26

*The author is a professor of social welfare at Kyonggi University.

By Joo Eun-sun

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