|Senior citizens pass through ticket barriers at Bukhansan Ui Station in Seoul. More than one third of all passengers who use the new Ui-Sinseol Line, which connects the station to Sinseol-dong Station, are holders of a senior free pass. / Yonhap|
Senior free pass has become bone of contention amid rising tax burden
By Jung Min-ho
When the government started allowing seniors (aged 65 or older) to use the subway for free in 1984, they accounted for less than 4.3 percent of the country's population.
Today the proportion is more than 14 percent. Amid the increasing burden on taxpayers, many young people are demanding change.
According to railway operators across the country, losses from the welfare benefit last year were 554.3 billion won ($507 million), a jump from 423.9 billion won in 2012. In some cities, including Gwangju and Busan, more than a quarter of their subway users have free passes. By 2020, total losses are expected to reach 728.1 billion won.
Not all seniors use the subway by necessity. Over the past few years, "silver subway delivery" businesses have boomed. Seniors are their employees, who use their free pass on the Seoul subway to shuttle parcels to buyers.
A 67-year-old man, surnamed Shin, is one of them. He makes between 600,000 and 800,000 won a month by delivering products from one district to another. "I don't feel lonely thanks to the job, which keeps me moving around. It is also a good exercise," he said.
But some young people complain that they feel "overburdened" because of the free riders.
"I was upset when the city government decided to increase the subway fare two years ago," a 28-year-old Seoul subway commuter, who declined to be named, said. "Whenever I hear news about a next fare hike, I don't feel good. I think the government should charge seniors to share the burden and reduce unnecessary subway use."
Money is not the only reason for such calls. Young people also complain that some senior citizens make the subway more crowded during rush hours and behave rudely to other passengers.
"I often see seniors argue with young people over seats," a 27-year-old jobseeker, surnamed Jung, said. "In our culture, young people feel they should offer their seats to the elderly. I do not mind giving my seat to seniors but feel bad when they ask for it as if they owned it. So I don't usually take a seat when there are seniors around to avoid such conflict."
In some countries, including Japan and France, not all senior citizens are entitled to free or cheaper subway travel. Those who earn more than a certain amount cannot receive the benefit.
Some scholars here, including Dongyang University Professor Park Jung-soo, also believe the government should not give out free subway passes to all elderly people. They say the current age for the free pass is too low and should be raised to 70 as people today live longer than 26 years ago, when the government introduced the benefit.
But other scholars, such as Ajou University Professor Yoo Jung-hoon, said gains from the policy are larger than what they seem, considering indirect effects for old people and society.
According to his recent study, the country can reduce healthcare costs for senior citizens hugely by allowing them to use the subway for free. He said the free system is helpful for their mental health. He concluded the gain-loss ratio is about 1:1.2.