Child poverty in Japan

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Children in poor households tend to get limited educational opportunities, which reduces their chance of getting decent jobs and raises the prospect of them living in poverty in the future.

The government’s first-ever policy outline to address the growing problem of child poverty lacks specific targets or financial measures to correct the situation. The Abe administration is urged to take more effective steps to invest in the future of such children, since breaking the vicious cycle of child poverty will be crucial to supporting the generations who support the nation in coming decades.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s latest survey, a record 16.3 percent of children lived in households that earn less than half the national median income as of 2012 — 0.6 percentage point higher than in 2009 and up from 13.7 percent as of 2003. The figure, which translates into roughly one in six children in Japan, topped the 2010 average of 13.3 percent among OECD member countries. The relative child poverty rate topped the national average of 16.1 percent (covering adults as well) for the first time since the government started taking relevant surveys in 1985.

Official statistics and surveys show that the ratio of children receiving higher education goes up in proportion to the income levels of their parents, so does their own average lifetime income. Children of families living below the poverty line often find it difficult to go on to higher education and are more likely to end up taking up low-paying jobs — unless they receive extra support.

The policy outline adopted by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday calls for efforts to equalize education opportunities for all children so that their future will not be affected by the conditions of the families and regions in which they grow up — and to stop the chain reaction of poverty across generations. Schools should serve as a platform for such efforts, where social workers assigned to municipalities will work with other local welfare organizations to support the livelihood of schoolchildren, the policy says.

The outline calls for gradually making kindergarten and nurseries for small children free of charge, steady implementation of scholarships to enable children of low-income households to attend high schools, as well as expanding no-interest loan programs to help students who are motivated to move on to higher education.

The policy outline mainly packages existing programs; its proposals for new measures lack specifics. It does not include any numerical targets to lower the child poverty rate or increase higher education opportunities for children of low-income families. Measures proposed by an expert panel at the Cabinet Office in June, such as increasing child-rearing allowances or bereaved family pension for single-parent households, were passed over.

Creation of a new scholarship program with no obligation to repay the allowances was reportedly considered by the government but eventually not included in the outline.

The Abe administration needs to follow up on the outline with more concrete steps backed by budgetary measures so that the situation for children of poor families will improve in meaningful ways.

The government attributes the rise in child poverty to the long-term decline in household income under the deflationary trend since the 1990s. It also highlights the increase in the number of single-parent families — mostly single-mother households. Roughly half of the mothers in such households are hired in low-paying part-time and other irregular jobs because they need to take care of their children.

The child poverty rate among these single-parent households shoots up to 54.6 percent.

In the policy outline, the government calls for expert support to help mothers in single-parent households keep up their jobs while rearing children, as well as measures to assist such mothers to receive education for a better job prospect.

An earlier government-funded program to help single mothers receive job-skill training so that they could work from home produced little results despite the spending of roughly ¥17 billion over five years to 2013. The government needs to assess the real needs of such households and take effective measures to support them.

Some experts say the problem of child poverty essentially reflects the increasing poverty among the younger-generation households in child-rearing age, including families that have both parents. A decisive factor behind this problem is the growing ranks of the nation’s workers hired in irregular jobs.

Since the 1990s, the number of people with irregular jobs such as those with part-time contracts has increased rapidly to hit 19 million in 2013, or about 37 percent of the nation’s employed workforce, as businesses cut back on full-time employees and relied more on low-paying irregular workforce to trim manpower expenses.

Even as the economy has picked up in recent months and some sectors face severe labor shortage, businesses still show more demand for irregular workers than regular employees.

The health and welfare ministry survey indicates that child-rearing generations face more severe financial conditions than the elderly. Roughly 66 percent of households with children feel hard-pressed in their ability to get by in daily life, compared with 54 percent for elderly households. The figure shoots up to 85 percent among single-mother households.

Many of the steps needed to support children of low-income households, such as creating new scholarship programs and establishing no-cost kindergartens and nurseries, will likely face the hurdle of budgetary constraints.

Historically Japan has lagged behind other industrialized economies in the public expenses it is willing to allocate — relative to GDP — to support childbirth and child-rearing.

The government should review the rigid allocation of social welfare budget, which is heavily spent on support for its elderly population but little on families with children, to substantially increase its investments for the future generations.