University of Pittsburgh

Kyungbae Chung (A&S ’86G)

Social welfare innovator

Portrait of Kyungbae Chung

Photo credit: Jeong Yi

At Pitt: He earned a PhD in economics from the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

In South Korea: Chung revolutionized the social welfare network by developing a national pension plan using long-term projection modeling learned at Pitt; introduced productive welfare, an innovation that included housing, education, and self-help programs for the poor; and instituted health insurance and a national pension to cover all citizens.

 

Kyungbae Chung boarded the slow train to Seoul in the summer of 1958. Accompanied by his grandmother, a sister, and two brothers, he was leaving the small community within his hometown of Mokpo, saying goodbye to much of the neighbor-caring-for-neighbor customs he had loved growing up.

The long trip lasted 10 hours. If he looked back, he was reminded of the villagers who had deposited in him the value of hard work and, traumatized by war and living with very little, who leaned on each other for support.

The young man’s family was moving to the capital city to join his father, who found work there as a tailor. But Chung was drawn there for another reason: he had been admitted to Seoul National University (SNU) to study English education. He was no longer looking back; he was looking forward. And though the rapidly expanding city of Seoul was 200 miles away from Mokpo, the distance between the old ways and the new frontiers that awaited him was immeasurable.

Chung earned a bachelor’s degree from SNU, and then pursued a master’s degree in public administration while serving in the military. But along the way, an internship with the Economic Planning Board awakened a curiosity in economics. He says that his experience growing up in a war-ravaged nation made him especially interested in the subject.

When he finished at SNU, he worked as a teacher and economist, but not long afterward, he would once more pull away from much of what he knew. This time, he would make the leap over an ocean.

Chung first arrived in the United States in 1973. He was 35, married with two young children and a new student at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich. In just two years, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics and went to work for the retail giant Kresge’s But the economist wanted to learn more.

He heard of the stimulating research at Pitt and, in 1982, after earning admission, he headed to campus to earn a PhD in economics.

In Oakland, he found a welcoming environment and a circle of top scholars. Economist and professor Marina Whitman, the daughter of noted mathematician, physicist, and computer scientist John Von Neumann, was there. Her father had been a friend of Einstein, whom, he recalls, she called Uncle Albert. Pitt’s economics professors, including Jim Kenkel, Mark Perlman, and Alvin Roth, who later won a Nobel Prize in economics, opened Chung’s eyes to the use of advanced mathematical optimization tools in economics.

“These people supported my imagination, my theories, my new ideas,” says Chung, who studied progressive and advanced theories of economics. Even in the 1980s, he says, people at Pitt “were studying theories of artificial intelligence, automatic controlled cars. The environment fit with me.”

In 1986, Chung carried these ideas and imaginations home when he returned to South Korea. He taught welfare economics and financing at SNU and researched social security for the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. By 1988, he was part of a highly respected team tasked with considering a national pension plan and exploring how it could be used to address the divide between poor and rich, capitalist and worker.

Chung says he relied upon skills learned at Pitt to construct a computer and prediction model that perfected the team’s ideas. His approach modernized the South Korean welfare state and advanced a national pension, health insurance, employment insurance, and more.

The model was adopted by the government in 1998. More than 50 million people use the system.

Later, Chung took his ideas even further when he introduced the system of productive welfare to South Korea. Its philosophy is rooted in the idea that welfare should encourage work and be useful in moving society forward. It consists of national pension and health care systems, social aid and self-help to the poor, and long-term care for the elderly.

The government adopted the productive welfare plan a few short months after it was introduced. Its innovative concepts were a return to the traditional values of caring for family and community, values Chung grew up surrounded by in Mokpo.

The economist says that Pitt helped him share with his whole country his belief in “community caring for community.” His studies gave him the tools to help others in new and meaningful ways.

“Without Pitt,” he says, “I would not be where I am today. I’m a Pitt product.”