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UPDATED: April 4, 2014 NO. 5 JANUARY 30, 2014
Straightening Out the Safety Net
New measures to better coordinate social assistance and help prevent fraud
By Wang Hairong

PUBLIC HEARING: Villager representatives in Tanglin Village in Zaoqiang County, Hebei Province, listen to presentations made by applicants for minimum living allowance on October 30, 2013 (MU YU)

On January 2, 2014, the Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council, China's cabinet, released a draft of regulations on social assistance, in order to solicit public feedback.

The Provisional Methods on Social Assistance include provisions on allowances that would ensure a minimum level of living standards, support for the extremely impoverished, assistance for people affected by disasters, medical assistance, and assistance for education, housing, employment and other areas.

Violators of the regulations, including officials who fail to approve social assistance for eligible applicants and those who provide social assistance to ineligible applicants, will be held legally accountable, and those claiming social assistance through fraud will face penalties, according to the document.

It also pledges to give fiscal subsidies and tax breaks to social organizations engaged in social assistance programs.

Closing loopholes

China's Constitution stipulates that citizens have the right to obtain material assistance from the government when they are old, ill or have lost the ability to work, and that the government should develop necessary social security, social assistance and healthcare systems so that people can exercise this right.

In 2012, government spending on social assistance exceeded 200 billion yuan ($33 billion), said Kan Ke, Deputy Director of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature.

In the same year, 74.8 million urban and rural residents claimed minimum living allowances, 5.5 million poor rural households were guaranteed proper food, clothing, medical care, housing and funeral expenses, 78 million disaster victims received assistance, and 91.3 million people received medical assistance, according to Kan.

Despite this, in a considerable number of areas, local governments have failed to provide living allowances for needy rural residents that meet the standards set, said Li Liguo, Minister of Civil Affairs, in a report to a session of the NPC Standing Committee in October 2012.

Li added that shortage of professional workers and funding for county-level civil affairs authorities has also made it more difficult to effectively and properly administer social assistance programs.

Wu Wenying, a 46-year-old farmer in Hezhuang Village in Luyi County, central China's Henan Province, did not get a minimum living allowance for her twin sons who suffer from cerebral palsy until her story was reported in the local media in 2009.

In addition to her twin sons, Wu has another son and a daughter. The family of six had to rely solely on the income of her husband Gao Songzhong, a bricklayer. About 20 years ago, the couple borrowed money to get the twins treated for their cerebral palsy, though the medical bills left them with difficult to manage debts.

Wu was illiterate and Gao did not finish primary school. The couple was not aware that the minimum living allowance has become available to rural residents all over the country since 2007.

Luyi has a disabled persons' federation, which collects information on disabled persons from designated sources in towns and villages, but somehow information on Wu's sons was not reported.

"Because of personnel shortage, it is impossible to verify information door to door," an official with Luyi's disabled persons' federation surnamed Yin told China Youth Daily.

In 2009, a local newspaper wrote that Wu had taken care of her paralyzed sons for 19 years. Local government then began to issue a monthly minimum living allowance totaling 60 yuan ($10) for each of the twins.

But the meager amount of money was not enough to save Wu's family from tragedy. On February 10, 2013, she gave poison to her twins, who drank it and died on the same day. Ten months later, Wu confessed to local police and was imprisoned.

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