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Around one-third of young employed or job-seeking South Koreans are experiencing working poverty or unstable employment, a recent study shows. “Working poverty” refers to a situation in which an individual remains poor or vulnerable to poverty despite being employed.
The study also found that those who experienced poverty once in their twenties were more likely to experience it again in their thirties and forties.
It went on to stress the need for proactive policies to provide young people with income support.
The report, titled “Poverty among Young People: Which Young People Are Poor?” was published in the latest edition of “Health and Welfare Policy Forum” on Mar. 3 by Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs research fellow Kim Tae-wan. Its findings showed 37.1% of the economically active population aged 19 to 34 as of 2015 - a category including recent graduates preparing for employment and those who have abandoned their job search - to have experienced unstable employment or working poverty, with their employment providing an income below the poverty line. The percentage was up from 34.2% in 2006. In contrast, the rate for people aged 35 to 54 fell from 38.1% in 2006 to 31.1% as of 2015.
The analysis was based on Korea Welfare Panel Study findings and included not only on the working poor but also young people under unstable employment conditions, including those working in temporary and day labor positions, the unemployed, graduates preparing for employment, and those who have given up on finding work. Together, they represent an expanded version of the previously recognized working poverty class.
“What has a major influence on working poverty is the occupational position in which young people participate in the labor market,” said Kim Tae-wan.
“The level of young people experiencing working poverty or in danger of falling into poverty due to unstable unemployment has been in the mid-30 percent range every year,” Kim added.
The study also found that those who experienced poverty in the past were more likely to be poor when they were older. Young people aged 19 to 34 in 2005 were tracked to see whether they escaped poverty over time. The results showed the relative income poverty rate - indicating those making below 50% of the median current income - remaining virtually unchanged at 6.7% in 2006, when the examinees were aged 20 to 35, and 6.3% in 2015, when they were aged 29 to 44. It’s a statistic with significant implications, showing the likelihood of poverty at a young age becoming entrenched over a lifetime.
In spite of the situation, anti-poverty policy has traditionally been focused on alleviating poverty among senior citizens. A common Korean saying holds that “suffering when you are young makes you stronger.” Indeed, young people have traditionally expected that their youth would allow them to escape poverty by working hard.
“The total number of young people receiving Basic Livelihood Benefits was around 118,000 as of 2015, which means only around 1% of young people in the registered resident population are being protected,” the report said.
“With a youth poverty rate consistently ranging in the 5% to 9% level, this level is limited in its effectiveness,” it concluded.
Kim noted that past government policies to support young people “have primarily been focused on the labor market.”
“To establish an environment where young people can live stable lives as they prepare for the future, there need to be income support policies for periods of job-seeking and unemployment, along with an emergency relief network that is easily accessible to young people,” he suggested.
By Hwangbo Yon, staff reporter
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