Another multiple suicide of financially struggling family occurs

Posted on : 2020-01-07 18:46 KST Modified on : 2020-01-07 18:46 KST
Repeated incidents shed light on holes in S. Korea’s welfare safety net
An apartment in Incheon where a family of four committed suicide due to financial difficulties on Nov. 19, 2019.
An apartment in Incheon where a family of four committed suicide due to financial difficulties on Nov. 19, 2019.

Another suicide of a family struggling with financial difficulties has occurred. Similar incidents have happened despite institutional improvements to identify blind spots in social services in the wake of a 2014 double suicide incident involving a mother and daughter in Seoul’s Songpa neighborhood.

According to accounts on June 6 from sources at the Gimpo Police Station in Gyeonggi Province and elsewhere, firefighters and a man identified by the initial “K” discovered three family members dead at an apartment in Gimpo’s Janggi neighborhood at around 3:40 am on June 5. The three people were K’s wife, 37; their eight-year-old son; and his mother in-law, 62. The husband, who was separated from his wife, told police that he had gone to the house that day after being unable to reach her for the past two days, explaining that he had asked 119 (emergency services) for assistance when he saw no signs of activity.

Items and circumstantial evidence discovered in the room with the three bodies suggested that the deaths were a murder-suicide. Notes believed to have been written by the wife and mother-in-law reportedly described financial issues and referred to life being “hard.” K’s wife had complained to acquaintances on occasion of “struggling economically.” The family members were not receiving basic livelihood security or other emergency benefits and had never received social services counseling, sources said.

Similar incidents involving the deaths of entire families have been occurring recently. A married couple in their 40s committed suicide with their two teenage children at their home in Daegu’s Buk (North) District on Christmas Eve last year. An investigation found that the family had been struggling financially while attempting to pay back a debt of 100 million won (US$85,797) on a salary of less than 2 million won (US$1,716) a month. The couple applied for near-poverty class recognition, but were not granted emergency benefits after their 20 million won (US$17,159) rental deposit and used truck were counted as assets.

On Nov. 19 of last year, four people -- including a woman in her 40s and her two children, both in their 20s – committed suicide in a rental unit in Incheon’s Gyeyang District, leaving a note describing “economic difficulties.” The family reportedly suffered from financial problems after the mother, who was the family’s breadwinner, lost her job. The family was entitled to residential benefits of 240,000 won (US$205.91) a month in rent assistance -- but with no history of health insurance premium nonpayment or electricity/water supply interruptions, it fell outside the scope of the system set up by the government to identify “endangered families” in the wake of the Songpa incident in 2014. Another incident the same month involving a mother and her three daughters in Seoul’s Seongbuk neighborhood was a case in which help was not received despite numerous warning signs, including nonpayment of health insurance premiums and utilities.

Over the past year, at least 70 people have passed away in 18 known incidents of multiple suicides and murder-suicides involving entire families. The most frequent reason identified from suicide notes and other information is believed to be extreme financial problems. In many cases, including the Daegu and Incheon incidents, families did not meet the government’s criteria for public assistance.

Arguments for loosening criteria for welfare benefits

To stop further deaths from occurring, experts are arguing the need for looser eligibility standards for the basic livelihood security system -- including doing away with the “person obligated to provide support” criteria cited as a major factor in the social service blind spot -- and more active involved by the public sector.

“The eligibility standards for the basic livelihood security system are so generally stringent that a lot of people [with serious financial difficulties] do not quality for support,” said Ku In-hoe, a professor of social welfare at Seoul National University.

“Even if we were to identify the people who are seriously struggling, we don’t have the social service benefits to offer them. We need to inspire hope by loosening the strict current standards, including an elimination of the ‘obligation to provide support’ standards and expansion of the scope of residential property recognition,” he advised.

The “person obligated to provide support” standard is a system that prevents the payment of livelihood or medical benefits to someone who otherwise meets the relevant criteria if he or she has parents or children with a specified level of income or assets.

“When people face economic difficulties, they are placed in a dangerous situation psychologically,” said Kim Beom-jung, a professor of social welfare at Chung-Ang University.

“To prevent suicides, it’s important for us to provide welfare services related to mental health along with income security,” he advised.

By Lee Jung-ha, Incheon correspondent, and Lee Jeong-gyu, staff reporter

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