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Welfare is not about sympathy

Welfare without a tax hike is a fiction. To offer it, we need financial resources.
June 27,2017
Imagine a situation where you have dinner with several people and the bill is evenly split. Sharing the bill can trigger selfishness and wariness. You would wonder if it is more profitable to order an expensive dish or whether it is a loss if someone else does so. If you were eating alone, a bowl of noodles would have been enough, but instead, an expensive seafood dish will be ordered, creating an unnecessary cost for all.

This is an example of Glance and Huberman’s theory, the diner’s dilemma. An act to avoid a loss will lower the effectiveness of society and the loss will eventually be suffered by individuals. And it starts from the trust toward the people around you and the system. The same distrust is often applied to welfare policy. People think that their tax money won’t be properly used and they won’t be able to receive benefits. This distrust will trigger resistance to the welfare and tax systems.

The public social expenditure of Korea is the lowest among the members of the OECD. According to recent statistics, Korea’s public social expenditure is worth 10.4 percent of its gross domestic product, far lower than the OECD average of 21 percent. The welfare level is similar to that of Mexico and Chile, where public social expenditures are low and the welfare benefits are small.

The people actually feel worse about the country’s welfare programs. Although the government spends 130 trillion won ($114.4 billion) out of its annual budget of 400 trillion won for welfare, health and labor policies and the civilian sector also spend 38 trillion won, many people say they are not receiving welfare benefits.

Their distrust and dissatisfaction cannot be criticized, because the people have never experienced a proper safety net offered by the government. Various programs are still offered, although they are not major benefits, but the inconsistency still exists. Why is that?

It’s because our welfare system is full of stopgap measures, rather than being a consistent policy based on a long-term blueprint. Welfare populism is often criticized, but such temporary programs are populist. Furthermore, a program for one group often fueled the distrust of other groups.

Among the welfare policies of the Moon Jae-in administration, the most prominent programs are job creation and government support for dementia patients. Although there are concerns about the cost, job creation must be the ultimate goal of welfare policy. Welfare demand, more than offering welfare programs, will increase the social burden, and the employment of potential welfare beneficiaries will decrease welfare demand. Self-esteem and human dignity as a result of labor are also more important.

Therefore, the government must work to create “good jobs” that will increase self-esteem and dignity. The program to support dementia patients is not a new system, but an expansion of the existing program to support patients with serious and rare illnesses.

It still has a special meaning, because it is the first government welfare policy that recognizes dementia, as patients have long been taken care of by individuals and family members, as a social risk and declares the government’s responsibility.

But welfare without a tax hike is a fiction. To offer it, we need financial resources. Issuing government bonds or increasing debt may allow the government to temporarily offer expanded welfare benefits without a tax hike, but ultimately it is impossible to do so. There are two resolutions. First, a tax rate hike. Second, the efficient use of tax money. As of now, increasing the effective corporate tax rate and the tax rate for the highest income tax bracket to heighten the companies and rich people’s responsibilities for the society appeared to be the most realistic measure. The system of offering welfare benefits must also be improved.

Each individual’s burden, according to Jeffrey Sachs, is the price of civilization. Beatrice Webb, the godmother of the welfare state, said welfare is a “national minimum of civilized life.” It is an advancement of civilization when a state changes from an invader to a welfare state. The prestige of a civilized society can be seen in its attitudes toward the weak members of society. Ahn Chang-ho once argued the need of financial, mental and moral capitals. Until now, Korea paid attention to securing the first two, and it is time for Korea to improve its moral capital by improving responsibility and trust in society.

Welfare is not about sympathy but about empathy. Empathy is an effort and attitude that has to do with respecting humanity. Jane Addams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, differentiated emotional sympathy from professional social welfare and warned against sympathy that could easily turn into ethical selfishness. Hannah Arendt, a political theorist who once worked as a social worker, also differentiated caring from sympathy and stressed the importance of love of the world built by human bonds. Welfare programs based on sympathy will make beneficiaries reconfirm their poverty and misfortune when they have to prove their qualifications for benefits. The benefactors, in the end, will also feel exhausted.

The term “cooperative politics” is often used in Korea and cooperation is also needed in welfare. Before cooperative politics, social trust and consensus must be put before empathy. It may sound abstract, but systems that have no root in empathy won’t be able to continue. The priority is empathy that will respect the dignity of all people. Before seeking cooperative politics in welfare, we must find empathy first.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 26, Page 29

*The author is a professor of Social Welfare Department at Yonsei University.

Song In-han