Rational standards needed

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Rational standards needed

Three days have passed since the Moon Jae-in administration announced a plan to offer emergency relief to people struggling because of the coronavirus outbreak. But the public is still confused over whether they are eligible for benefits. District offices cannot work due to an avalanche of phone calls asking about standards for the handouts, and the website of the Ministry of Health and Welfare is freezing because of the traffic going to it. The government plans to unveil guidelines next week after setting the standards. That constitutes a dereliction of duty.

“Emergency” means the government must provide the money quickly after setting guidelines. A responsible government would not take such an unprofessional approach particularly when it calls for a whopping 9.1 trillion won ($7.39 billion) budget. That budget also needs to be approved by the National Assembly after careful deliberations between the ruling and opposition parties. And yet, the ruling Democratic Party rushed to make public the plan after pressuring the Ministry of Strategy and Finance. It deserves the criticism it is receiving for drawing up makeshift policies to curry favor with voters ahead of the April 15 parliamentary elections.

The government said it will dole out 1 million won to each family of four in the bottom 70 percent income group. But the specific amount of combined income per household was not specified. Whether real estate holdings by families will be considered is also ambiguous. The Finance Ministry said it will only consider recipients’ aggregate monthly incomes, but the Welfare Ministry wants to take into account the value of their properties as well.

A bigger problem is fairness. If the money is given based on the combined income of a household, working couples can hardly receive it, while rich individuals with assets can get it as long as they’re not working now. Another problem comes with emergency relief offered by local governments. Some people might get money from central and local governments, while others will not. The benefits vary based on whether family members live in the same house. Such a lack of equity is a problem. If dissatisfaction grows among those not eligible for the handouts, it could lead to disgruntlement.

Emergency relief is a tool for the government to mitigate massive shocks. As the government has to consider urgency and fairness at the same time, it is not an easy job. Perhaps discontent is inevitable. But confusion is not. The government must set rational standards for payments as soon as possible to meet the original goal of its relief package — helping the people who need it most.
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