The Elderly Deserve Better

      August 03, 2010 13:13

      A study published by the National Pension Research Institute shows that 35.1 percent of households consisting only of people over 65 live in "absolute" poverty, meaning their income is below the minimum cost of living. The ratio of poverty-stricken senior citizens to the total number of Koreans has been rising steadily from 30 percent in 2006. In terms of relative poverty, 45 percent of elderly people in Korea have an income of less than 50 percent of the median -- the highest proportion in the OECD.

      In France, seven out of 10 pensioners surveyed by pollster Sofres said their living conditions improved after retirement. In advanced countries, pensions offer solid support for retired workers, and people who retire after productive careers are thanked for their economic contributions. In England, for example, pensioners receive 70 percent of their former earnings.

      Korea got a late start in economic development and welfare policies and is unable to match those conditions. But pension payments here are painfully small. Two and a half million Koreans have become eligible for state pensions, which were introduced in 1988, but 50.6 percent of them get less than W200,000 (US$1=W1,175) a month, while 33.9 percent get between W200,000 and W400,000 due to the short time they contributed to the pool. That is barely enough to maintain minimum living standards. The government began paying welfare to elderly citizens starting in 2008, and 69 percent of senior citizens benefit from them, but monthly allotments amount to just W90,000.

      Koreans are living longer and the elderly population of the country is increasing at the fastest rate in the world. This year, there are 5.35 million senior citizens in Korea, but that will rise to 6.38 million in 2015, 7.7 million in 2020 and 11.8 million in 2030.

      Korea's senior citizens toiled in factories and stayed up nights when they were young to boost exports that fueled our economy. Their blood, sweat and tears are responsible for raising Korea's per-capita annual income from just US$65 in 1955 to almost $20,000 today. And they spent their money supporting their children and parents and ended up saving little or nothing for their own retirement.

      Now, social changes have made it difficult for parents to turn to their children for financial assistance, and state pensions are not enough. The suicide rate among Koreans between 65 and 74 rose from 44 out of every 100,000 in 1995 to 137 in 2005, the most in the world. This trend is probably related to the financial plight of the country's elderly. And most senior citizens who live alone are both poor and sick. Their plight deserves more urgent attention than the issue of free school meals for elementary school children.

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