Benefits for multicultural families are not as they seem, even if you're Song Joong-ki

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Benefits for multicultural families are not as they seem, even if you're Song Joong-ki

Local news outlets including the Korea JoongAng Daily recently published an article listing a series of multicultural family benefits that superstar actor Song Joong-ki and his new wife British actor Katy Louise Saunders will be eligible for when they welcome their new child sometime this year.
The list of benefits slightly differed by articles, from simple perks such as discounts on monthly phone bills to more socially sensitive benefits like priorities in public housing lotteries and college entries. But they all either state or imply that the celebrity’s large bank account and his 50 billion won ($38.5 million) in assets won’t be a problem for Song if he wished to acquire these benefits.  

This quickly bred resentment and confusion for both nationals and multicultural families.  
Koreans called it reverse discrimination, leaving bitter comments like “Please focus on your own people more,” as seen under the comments section of this paper’s affiliate, JoongAng Ilbo on Jan. 31.

But feedback from actual multicultural families revealed that most weren’t aware of the listed benefits and some even saw them as untrue.  
“We didn't even know about the benefits until we read the article,” newlyweds Abigail Skofield and Woo Sang-eun told the JoongAng Daily. A comment from another multicultural family member under the JoongAng Ilbo article read, “I am a Korean woman married to an Italian husband, and as someone with first-hand experience with some of these ‘benefits’, this article is distorting our realities.”
Actor Song Joong-ki, left, and his wife Katy Louise Saunders [NEWS1, KATY SAUNDERS]

Actor Song Joong-ki, left, and his wife Katy Louise Saunders [NEWS1, KATY SAUNDERS]

Can Song Joong-ki really get these benefits?  
Song is most likely not going to apply for any of the multicultural benefits listed in these articles, given his income and status; But even if he wanted to, he nor any other multicultural families in Korea could actually receive most of them — not now at least, and not simply for being multicultural.  
The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in charge of the multicultural families policies wasn't able to provide a definitive answer to this question because many of Song's reported benefits weren't being offered by them. But calls to some of the benefits' respective facilities made it evident these were perks that either used to exist, exist only in a handful of cities or exist for all Koreans, not just for multicultural families. 
For instance, childcare support fees which some outlets reported as a benefit for multicultural families, are actually provided for all Korean families who send their five-year-old or younger child to daycare.  
Money issued upon marriage with a foreigner, airfare for the foreign spouse to visit his or her country, medical support fees, monthly phone bill discounts and long-term, low-interest loans all may have been offered by individual businesses and local governments in the past. Today, they are hard to find, especially in the greater Seoul area.  

Children of multicultural families are given some priority when entering public kindergartens and daycare centers, but so many other factors (such as income level and the number of parents) are taken into account so it wouldn’t be “accurate” to say children of multicultural households have an absolute advantage to get into these facilities over other children, according to a worker at the Ministry of Health and Welfare.  
The housing lottery is similar. Some 10 percent of the available public houses are set aside not just for multicultural households, but also for many others such as those with low income, veterans and the disabled. Families are carefully vetted with regard to numerous aspects of their lives, so getting selected for simply being a multicultural family is “highly unlikely,” said an employee at Gyeonggi’s multicultural family division.

“Many of these benefits are for the socially underprivileged which can include multicultural families but doesn’t always necessarily,” said Kim Myeong-ok from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s multicultural family division. And though she couldn’t speak for all the benefits in the articles, she said that many have disappeared over the years with the changing times.  
“It is a longstanding stigma in Korean society that multicultural families get a lot of benefits. This may have been true two decades ago, but today, they do not have an absolute advantage over other Koreans on issues such as housing, loans, and entry into public kindergartens or universities just because they are multicultural." 
After the recent flush of articles, Kim’s office has received dozens of calls from Koreans questioning the logic behind the benefits and also from foreigners who wanted to know if these benefits actually exist because they’ve never heard of them.

“It was an awkward situation for everybody,” she said. “We aren’t the ones providing most of these benefits so we couldn’t give definite answers. Many sound unlikely, but we don’t know if there are some local governments or private facilities that are still running these benefits.”  
Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is responsible for state policies and studies on multicultural families in Korea [YONHAP]

Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is responsible for state policies and studies on multicultural families in Korea [YONHAP]

Are there any significant benefits?  
There are multicultural family support centers under the Multicultural Families Support Act, which provide language classes, counseling and translation services among various other programs. These centers are present in all districts in Seoul and cities outside of the capital; But other than that, there are no significant benefits dedicated to multicultural families sans other conditions. 
Cha Yoon-kyung, professor emeritus of Hanyang University’s Education Department and former chairman of the Korean Association for Multicultural Education, said that selective policies that single out multicultural families understandably brew resentment in other Koreans.  

“Multicultural families used to be viewed as social minorities and the country’s policies were largely formed to help these people, but nowadays, the scope of the word 'multicultural' has widened, in both number and diversity; Just because someone is part of a multicultural family, it does not mean he or she is poor or in need of government support, like Song Joong-ki,” he said, adding that the government can no longer apply a one-size-fits-all solution to the group as it has in the past.
“Korean society should no longer be drawing a line between a ‘Korean family’ and ‘multicultural family’ when offering benefits and also when considering them as part of this country.”  

History of Korea’s multicultural policy  
Korea is one of few, if not the only developed country where its law defines “multicultural family” and the central government has selective policies for them, according to Cha.  
A multicultural family under the Multicultural Family Support Act is a family with a spouse who is of a foreign nationality or is a naturalized Korean. The purpose as stated in the act is to “support early adaption and stable settlement of multicultural family” and “promote sound international marriage and to enhance Korean society's receptivity to multiple cultures.”

Choi Yoo-jeong, a Korean Women’s Development Institute researcher, described the act as a “work in progress.” “It came into effect in 2018, a time when Korea was starting to realize its future no longer looked so ethnically homogenous and we’ve made many alterations since then,” she said.  
Governmental policies on multicultural families largely arose in the 1990s and centered on foreign women, mainly Southeast Asians and ethnic Koreans from China, who came to Korea as brides for rural town bachelors who had trouble finding a local partner willing to embrace the country life.

Korea has undergone a major demographic shift since then with the number of multicultural families growing over four-fold. In 2021, Korean Statistical Information Service reported that there were 1.119 million people who are part of a multicultural family. It has already been several years since school textbooks stopped using the word homogenous to describe the Korean population.  
There are many K-pop stars today who are born into multicultural families. Above is K-pop singer Jeon So-mi with her father who is a Canadian-Dutch. Her mother is Korean. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

There are many K-pop stars today who are born into multicultural families. Above is K-pop singer Jeon So-mi with her father who is a Canadian-Dutch. Her mother is Korean. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Realities of multicultural families in Korea  
Though there is no longer a singular form of multicultural families, government studies show there are hardships unique to these families that should go recognized.  
The Song Joong-ki article shed light on a pressing issue — xenophobia.  
According to the 2021 Korean multiculturalism inventory which measures the country’s level of multicultural acceptance, Korean adults recorded 52.27 out of 100. It is 0.54 points less than the last time the study was done in 2018.  
The score is calculated through questions in eight categories including cultural openness and willingness to interact. Though still very low, it had been inching upward until two years ago. The ministry interpreted the drop to be the result of the passing pandemic.  
Discrimination, especially in the workplace, is still very much prevalent, according to the same report. While only 16.3 percent answered that they faced discrimination in their families or at public locations, 70 percent said that they faced workplace discrimination.  
Moreover, multicultural families have lower average income than other Koreans, though the numbers are consistently rising every year. The National Survey of Multicultural Families reported last year that about six percent of the multicultural family population received basic livelihood security given to low-income or underprivileged families.  
The same report showed that children of multicultural families have lower average self-esteem levels than locals. And although they have high attendance rates in elementary, middle and high school, only 40.5 percent went to college. The number is 31 percentage points less than that of high school graduates with two Korean parents who enter college.

“These children of multicultural families will soon enter society so we want to be aware of their state and help them efficiently function in the world, or else, they may become stigmatized as an inept community, ” said researcher Choi.  
Why multicultural families are important to Korea

Multicultural families are a critical part of the country’s future amid the spiraling birthrate.  
The Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI) reported that the number of students from multicultural families rises every year. For 2021, it recorded 160,058, making up three percent of the country’s entire student population. The number is 8.6 percentage points higher than last year when there were 147,378 students who made up 2.8 percent of the entire student population.
Korea's entire youth population from ages 9 to 24, meanwhile, has decreased by nearly half since 1982. In 2021, there was 8.147 million youth, accounting for 15.8 percent of the total population. KEDI speculated that the youth population will drop to 4.545 million, or 10.4 percent of the total population, by 2060.

“It is advantageous for everyone if multicultural families integrate well into our society,” said Kim from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. “The aim of our policies isn’t to drive a wedge, but to maintain a happy, sustainable society, so it is unfortunate that some people misunderstand it as being solely beneficial to foreigners.”

“By law, multicultural families are no different than other Korean citizens,” said professor Cha. “Labeling someone ‘multicultural’ itself can be discriminatory. It is high time that Koreans accept the fact that we live in a multiethnic society where people look and talk differently.”  

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