[Editorial] Taking special care of the underprivileged

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[Editorial] Taking special care of the underprivileged

We spent the Lunar New Year with families and relatives under no restraints related to Covid-19 for the first time in three years. But the four-day holiday period was harsh for the working and lower classes. The winter has been exceptionally cold, and incomes tighter due to a deepening economic slump.

Heating costs more than doubled from a year ago. City gas bills jumped over 30 percent due to a spike in import prices of liquefied natural gas (LNG) due to the protracted Russia-Ukraine war. Households cannot easily heat up despite the freezing cold snap. Other utility fees also are ready to go up. Electricity bills rose 9.5 percent from Jan. 1 and city gas charges will climb up higher in the second quarter. Local governments are raising public transportation fares and water charges.

Yet the economy is turning harder, especially for the self-employed. According to Yonhap News Agency, 340,000 self-employed closed their businesses and chose to be unemployed in the past year as of December. Of them, 310,00 endured without any hires. The self-employed made up 20.1 percent of all the employed last year, the lowest since data was first compiled from 1963. The self-employed without any hires totaled 4.27 million, the largest since the 2008 global financial crisis. Most of them are surviving on debt.

According to the Bank of Korea, lending to the self-employed reached 1,014 trillion won ($819 billion) as of the end of September, rising by more than 300 trillion won from the first quarter of 2020 at the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak. They manage on rollvers and deferment programs as a part of the pandemic relief and fear the cease in the relief program.

Various data underscores the hard lives of middle-aged people who have followed their dreams to start a business of their own but had to let go of their hires and eventually shut down business with debt load. The employment market is under a cold spell. The government predicts that payroll addition will stop at around 100,000, about one eighth of last year’s increase. The government also plans to reduce public-sector recruitments this year.

This year could be the toughest for the working and vulnerable class. As the economy is receding, people’s income is being strained by utility fee hikes and a job drought. Rationalization in utility fees and restructuring in the public sector are necessary as they are eating up economic competitiveness. There should be ways to lessen the damage on the weaker class. The government must come up with micro support measures to ease the hardship for the vulnerable class.
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