A Forgotten Generation: Half Of South Korea's Elderly Live In Poverty
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to South Korea and the plight of the generation responsible for that country's economic rise and high-tech advances. South Korea has the worst senior poverty rate among developed nations. And NPR's Elise Hu says for retirees, the options are slim. She sent this report.
HAN DAL-YONG: (Foreign language spoken).
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Every Thursday morning at 9:30, throngs of Korean senior citizens shuffle past a line of church volunteers. They're collecting small handouts, change that amount to 50 cents, a juice box; sometimes a banana. This morning, the crowd in line reached about 300. And on some Thursdays, it's a lot more.
DAL-YONG: (Foreign language spoken).
HU: Han Dal-yong is nearly 80 years old. He showed up to line up hours before the giveaways began. He tells us, as much as he needs the cash, he also comes here for the community.
DAL-YONG: (Through interpreter) There are a lot of people who don't have anything else to do. What are you going to do if you're alone in the house? You might as well come out here.
HU: This scene is repeated over and over across South Korea, mostly organized by places of worship. Church leaders say they started the handouts in the late '90s to help the homeless. But in recent years, those who show up are almost all retirees, some nearly 100 years old.
KU IN-HOE: Almost half of the elderly people is poor in Korea, so it's a really very serious problem.
HU: Ku In-hoe researches poverty issues as a professor at Seoul National University.
IN-HOE: Before the 1990s, usually younger people supported their parents during their retirement age, so it was not a serious problem. And at the time, usually older people did not live long. But during the last 20 years, elderly people live longer, and younger people also experience economic difficulty.
HU: It's clear the Confucian tradition of younger generations taking care of their parents has faded. The last Korean census showed an estimated 1 in 3 Korean seniors lives alone - Professor Ku.
IN-HOE: If government hired the younger generation to support their parents, probably the situation can improve, but it's not a realistic solution only to rely on the children to support their elder parents.
HU: While South Korea does provide a basic pension to retirees, it amounts to 200 U.S. dollars a month, and the pension isn't universal - Hon Don Yong.
DAL-YONG: (Through interpreter) Of course it's not enough.
HU: He says he wishes senior citizens here lived a better life. Instead, they feel forgotten by society, and a larger crisis may be looming. South Korea's birth rate is continuing to fall, which means these seniors are only becoming a bigger part of the population. Without a clear solution in sight, people like Han say they'll keep lining up for 50 cents at a time. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.