Gov’t hit for flip-flop on free daycare policy
The present government cringes every time it encounters evidence of populism, so it’s interesting to watch officials walk blindly into a public-relations crisis they created themselves by making shallow and shoddy attempts to shower the people with goodies.
It was just four months ago when the Lee Myung-bak administration enforced an ambitious plan to provide free access to kindergartens and daycare centers for children under the age of 5, irrespective of household income levels.
But while the central government was eager to soak up all the glory as it entered an election year, it was the regional governments that had to pay off the largest part of the bill. And now as municipalities raise concerns about their depleting coffers, Strategy and Finance Ministry officials would rather play deaf and preach prudence.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare earlier this week estimated that most municipalities will exhaust their budgets for the free childcare services between October and December. On the same day, the affluent southern Seoul district of Seocho deemed itself financially incapable of extending the programs beyond this month.
This caused Vice Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon to hold an emergency news conference and declare that state funding for children under 24 months will have to be ``reconsidered’’ from scratch.
But this quintessential display of backtracking triggered an angry response from the ruling Saenuri Party, which has been struggling to cope with the deadweight of a lame-duck president in Cheong Wa Dae as it desperately tries to find favor with voters ahead of the December presidential polls.
The Saenuri Party leadership is now pressing the government to tap into its contingency allowance in order to inject regional governments with a fresh 620 billion won (about $547 million) to keep the free childcare services afloat until the end of the year. Finance ministry officials balked at the idea.
``If we change laws every time to help municipalities whenever their budgets are insufficient, it will be difficult to pursue any state-supported initiatives in the future,’’ said a finance ministry official.
The conflict between the government and the majority of lawmakers was predictable and perhaps even inevitable as they have been throwing out election-year promise after promise without thinking them through.
Strengthening childcare support was one of President Lee’s campaign pledges in 2007. Senior policymakers like Finance Minister Bahk Jae-wan and Welfare Minister Lim Chae-min even speechified that that the changes in the welfare system were crucial for the country to deal with the challenges of an aging workforce by increasing the number of women working and allowing them to set a work-life balance.
But the discussions until late last year were about expanding free childcare services to all children between 3 and 4 that had only been provided to the poorest 30 percent of households. With an election-year approaching, politicians agreed to sweeten the offer to cover all infants under the age of 24 months. The recent debacle shows that officials and lawmakers did not bother to check their calculators.
Government officials admit that the demand for childcare centers among parents with children 2 or younger has been dramatically higher than expected. The usage rate of childcare facilities increased from 50 to 80 percent after the changes, according to welfare ministry estimates.
Municipalities had been supporting 40 to 80 percent of the free childcare costs and the central government budget of 3.8 trillion won doesn’t come close to filling the financing gaps. Critics say that the unselective nature of the policy hurts double-income households and others who truly deserve strengthened welfare services, as it now appears that even non-working mothers in high-income households send their young toddlers to childcare centers.