Budget for birthrate program badly mishandled

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Budget for birthrate program badly mishandled

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Although the national government spent 151 trillion won ($134 billion) in the past decade to boost the low fertility rates and address the problem of Korea’s aging society, little changed since. In fact, the nation’s fertility rate has dropped from 1.25 births per woman to 1.24 births per woman. JoongAng Ilbo, with Rep. Na Kyung-won of the Saenuri Party, found out why.

Na, who chairs the National Assembly’s special committee on low fertility rates and population aging, along with her Assembly staff, found out that much of the 151 trillion won budget for the initiative was spent on programs irrelevant to either issue.

According to the investigation into 20 ministries and departments, projects such as attracting foreign students, boosting the export of small- to medium-sized companies or encouraging tourists to stay at temples during their visits, were included in the initiative.

“The state of low fertility and population aging in this country is paramount to a national emergency,” Na said on Sunday in an exclusive interview with the JoongAng Ilbo. “Yet when I looked into the programs under the initiative, all I saw were each department’s self-interested programs forcefully shoved in there.”

The Assembly’s special committee on low fertility and population aging, newly established in July, held its first hearing Monday to re-examine policies to be included in the initiative, which is budgeted to spend another 198 trillion won from this year until 2020. This is the first time that an Assembly’s committee examined the budget and programs of the low fertility and population aging initiative, which dates back to 2006.

South Korea’s fertility rate has been dropping rapidly over the past few decades, and fell from 6.2 births per woman in 1960 to 1.2 births per woman in 2014, according to the World Bank, which was the lowest among the countries examined by the World Bank that year, tying with Hong Kong and Macao and still a few points lower than Singapore, Japan and China.

Moreover, Korea’s drop in its fertility rate was wider than the fall of the global average, which fell from 4.98 births per woman in 1960 to 2.45 births per woman in 2014.

At the same time, the proportion of Korea’s population aged more than 65 years old has been rising over the years, from 4 percent of the total population in 1960 to 13 percent in 2015, also a rapid climb when compared with the global average, which rose from 4.99 percent in 1960 to 8.27 percent in 2015.

The initiative to boost the birthrate and respond to Korea’s aging society was first implemented from 2006 to 2010, and for the second time from 2011 to 2015.

Yet few of the programs under the decade-long initiative directly target these issues, and the initiative has become a kind of welfare bubble, including programs from tourism and youth employment to national exports.

For example, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism from 2008 to 2011 promoted a program called “Temple Stay” to attract more foreign visitors to stay at temples and traditional Korean houses, or hanok. The policy would, according to the ministry’s press release, “support Korean citizens’ leisure activities in addition to promoting Korea’s unique culture to foreigners.”

The ministry budgeted some 60 billion won on the program and a total of 486.8 billion won for all of its “family leisure” programs as part of the central government’s low fertility and aging society initiative. The oddity involved in the mix and match of programs under the initiative can be spotted throughout various ministries.

Also added to the initiative was the Ministry of the Interior’s 554.9 billion won five-year program to install new CCTV cameras throughout the country. The ministry billed the program as one that would help prevent the sexual harassment of youth, which, according to the ministry’s logic, allegedly has much to do with low fertility and population aging.

In fact, ministries often used the keyword “youth” to describe projects submitted under the initiative.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family submitted a 143.4-billion-won project to reduce youth smoking and drinking in the second term of the initiative, from 2011 to 2015. The Ministry of Education’s 38.2-billion-won project to attract foreign students was also included in the second term of the initiative, as was the Ministry of Employment and Labor’s 1.32-trillion-won plan to create jobs for young adults in the initiative’s third term.

“Since the central government is having a hard time pinpointing the exact cause of low fertility,” said an official who works at Rep. Na’s office, “each government department is coming up with its own programs to address low fertility and population aging, mixing and matching programs with keywords like ‘youth,’ ‘multicultural’ and even ‘foreigners.’”

Indeed, included in the initiative is the Ministry of Justice’s project to provide foreign residents with a 20-language civil complaint service and the Welfare Ministry’s program to attract foreigner patients to the country.

According to Rep. Na’s office, the programs that are directly related to the initiative from 2006 to 2015 probably spent less than 10 trillion won of the 151 trillion won budget. On the other hand, Na’s office found that at least 20 projects worth some 5.12 trillion won were hardly related to it, at all.

Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that the decade-long initiative had little impact on the country’s fertility rate. Yet when Na’s secretary, Han Seong-yeon, asked relevant departments why policies irrelevant to the initiative were submitted under it, the answers that came back were even more shocking.

“Does it have to be related?” an official in charge of a program submitted to the initiative reportedly asked Han. “A lot of these programs don’t have a reason for being part of the initiative.”

According to Han and the office staff, “I don’t know” was the most common reply.

“Some program officers told me that the officers changed over the years so they cannot confirm anything,” Han said, “or that they don’t know much about the projects that date back more than a few years.”

The third term of the initiative begins this year and lasts until 2020. It is budgeted to spend 198 trillion won. Yet only nine out of 189 programs included in the third term of the initiative are new, while the rest have simply been carried over from the second term, which also had only 13 new projects out of 234 from the first term.

“Even if it means many programs have to be revamped,” Na said, “an initiative to address low fertility and population aging should only include programs actually related to low fertility and population aging.”

BY JUNG HYO-SIK, PARK YU-MI, AND ESTHER JUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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