Thu, Aug 02, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Unfair system keeps people poor

By Karleen Chiu 邱貴玲

When a 17-year-old boy surnamed Lin () murdered his father on the morning of July 26, one could not help but recall a similar tragedy which took place 20 years ago, that of Tsou Aborigine Tang Ying-shen (湯英伸). The fate of children in poor families has not changed much over the past two decades. Poor families are stuck on the bottom of the social ladder with little hope of improving their lot.

The stratification of our society becomes more obvious by the day. The problems of young Lin's family were created by generations of poverty and are only the tip of the iceberg. Regrettably, Lin believed that by taking the life of his father and destroying his own future, he would solve all of his family's problems. One feels both sympathy and alarm when learning of this calamity.

Twenty years ago, Tang left home and headed north to make a living. He worked at a laundry in slave-like conditions. The maltreatment he received led to a mental breakdown and serial murders. After Tang's arrest, people from all walks of life called for the 19-year-old to be spared, yet the social and legal environment of the day was such that he was executed.

The tragic tale of Tang was caused by the exploitation of labor. Now, 20 years on, the murder committed by Lin was likewise rooted in poverty, though in this case, the family was overwhelmed by debt.

Lin's father did not have a steady job, was a compulsive gambler and did little to support his family. He married a mentally disabled woman, a condition that his oldest son inherited. After graduating from junior-high school Lin left for an aunt's house in Taipei along with his older sister. He started working as an apprentice at a bakery and used his wages to help his father pay off the family's massive credit card debt. This created the family tensions that would lead to murder.

A family like the Lins cannot possibly pay back what they owe, much less understand the law and the responsibilities that come with having a credit card. Lin killed his father because he believed that once his father was dead, all the debt problems would disappear. How could he understand that by law, if a family does not promptly make a legal proposal to have a dead member's debts declared void, the father's debts would become the family's responsibility?

The Chiayi City Government has said that Lin's widowed mother could apply for a government allowance for women facing special circumstances. The eldest son can also collect a monthly allowance for the disabled, and the grandfather is entitled to a low-income allowance.

But these payments are cumbersome to apply for and the system for distribution is hardly uniform. Disadvantaged families have a limited understanding of how society works and simply cannot fill out all the required forms and deal with the diverse and complex applications. Such subsidies don't simply fall from the sky. Families like the Lins need the help of social workers to apply for them. But how can Taiwan deal with such a huge number of impoverished people given the current social worker system and limited resources?

Following US president Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty in the 1960s, Richard Cloward, a professor at Columbia University's School of Social Work, wrote a book asking whether the US social system was basically "regulating the poor" and if society was using the system to keep the vast majority of the poor in poverty. This observation was right on the mark, and Taiwan should learn a lesson from Cloward's conclusion.

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