Fighting to Live: The Korean People’s Solidarity Against Poverty

On August 29th, the KEEP 2014 delegation and the ISC Policy and Research Coordinator Song, Dae-Han met with Kim, Yoon Young, the General Secretary for the Korean People’s Solidarity Against Poverty to learn about their anti-poverty struggles. The Korean People’s Solidarity Against Poverty is composed of 46 organizations including labor unions such as the Korean Confederation of Trade Union and organizations for evictees, community members, street vendors, single room occupancy tenants, and the homeless. They do consultations, advocacy, and solidarity work directly with the poor and with anti-poverty and homeless organizations. They are currently fighting to abolish the family obligation system and reform the basic standard of living guarantee.

We are fighting to reform the basic standard of living guarantee system. If your immediate family has a certain amount of assets or income, even if you yourself are poor, you may not qualify for the basic standard of living guarantee.[1] This is due to the family obligation system. For a year now, we have been occupying Gwanghwamun Subway Station along with disability rights groups calling for the abolishment of the disability grade system and the family obligation system.

Occupation inside Gwanghwamun Station by Disability Rights and Anti-Poverty Organizations Against the Disability Grade System and the Family Obligation System

Occupation inside Gwanghwamun Station by Disability Rights and Anti-Poverty Organizations Against the Disability Grade System and the Family Obligation System

The poverty rate in Korea is about 16 percent, but those receiving assistance payments are 2.7 percent. The situation is particularly severe for the elderly whose poverty rate is about 50%. This is because either their wages were too low or precarious, or because education costs and health care were too expensive given the undeveloped insurance system.

The Basic Living Standard Guarantee
The basic living standard guarantee started in 1998 in the aftermath of the IMF crisis. Before that, it was only available to the elderly, the disabled, and children. Yet, because of the severe unemployment problem post-IMF, the basic living guarantee law was expanded to include everyone.

The current system sets a basic standard of living. If a person falls below that standard, then the person receives government assistance to meet that basic standard. Because the standard is so low and because of exclusions through the family obligation system, or because of assets, there are many people that though they need it, cannot get it.

Part of our demands is that the reform of the basic standard of living system be done with the participation of those receiving assistance payments in a way that reflects their opinions.

Too Poor to Live
In the beginning of the year, a mother and her two daughters committed suicide in Songpa District. This brought a lot of public attention to the issue of poverty.

The father had passed away due to cancer. So, the mother and daughters lived together in a basement apartment. The mother worked in a restaurant and earned 1.5 million won a month. The two daughters were in their thirties; the oldest was suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes, and the younger one had severe credit card debt. Both of them could not work.

The month before the suicides, the mother had slipped on an icy road and hurt herself. So, she couldn’t go to work and so there was no income for them.

Why weren’t they able to receive government assistance? It’s because the government saw them as fit to work. Even if there was no work, there was this strong insistence that they should be looking for work. The social welfare system is shaped and driven by the notion that the poor are unwilling to work. Even when there is no work, they are constantly told to look for work. The real causes of poverty are not explored.

Mining the Poor for Profits
Because the social welfare system is not doing its job, we see the emergence of for profit institutions (e.g. the nursing homes) and criminal elements exploiting the poor and disabled through internment and identity theft.

One of our member organizations, Homeless Action, is fighting to change the nursing home system. In Korea, not only can the elderly access nursing homes, so can those with mental disabilities. Recently, there have been many nursing homes sprouting up. In order to receive payments from the government, these nursing homes intern homeless people in their facilities. The nursing homes might pick up homeless people from places such as Seoul and Yongsan Station and bring them to their facilities. Then, the nursing home will try to keep them there by coaxing them with cigarettes in exchange for them staying. If some of these people express a desire to leave, then the nursing home people might inject them with sedatives. There have even been deaths.

We are currently demanding that the Ministry of Health and Welfare investigate and resolve these incidents. However, at the core of the problem is that while the government ensures the activities of the nursing homes, it does not guarantee or take responsibility for the welfare or the human rights of the poor. If a person stays in your facility for a month, you receive at least 1.2 million won from his or her health insurance. On the other hand, a low income person only receives 600 thousand won a month, only 480 thousand of which is received in cash. The government is more interested in pumping money into the institutions than in increasing assistance to the poor.

The Park Administration’s Attack on the Poor
Despite all these institutional and criminal problems faced by the poor, the Park Administration is more interested in targeting assistance recipients by accusing them of fraudulently receiving assistance. So, it created a hotline where you can report people that should not be receiving it. As a result of the hotline, the Park Administration stated that it was able to recover about 10 billion won. If we look closely at this number, about 9.7 billion won was recovered from institutions such as nursing homes with fraudulent practices such as fabricating employment. The amount recovered from people who should not have received assistance was about 70 million won. Despite these findings, the government does nothing about these facilities and keeps targeting the poor.

Many poor people are dying because of the system. If we look at those that have committed suicide, 20% of them are for economic reasons. So, nowadays the issue of how to resolve the stigma associated with the poor has become a societal issue.

In the past, poor people’s movements would have to insist “Korea may look well off, but there are still a lot of poor people.” Now, we no longer have to do that. Many people see themselves as poor. That’s why the Songpa 3 suicide sent such shockwaves through Korean society. People empathized with their situation: they too could get injured, fall behind payments, and be driven to desperation and suicide.

[1] For the elderly, this means that their sons and daughters income and assets are taken into account when determining government assistance eligibility. The reverse can apply for people with disabilities: The income or assets of a parent may disqualify a person with a disability (even if they are adults). This is based on the notion that one’s family is obligated to care for one.