Saving children from poverty

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People may be shocked to hear that nearly one out of every six children in Japan live in poverty. An outline of programs to combat child poverty, which the Abe administration adopted in August, calls for building a society in which all children “can grow with dreams and hopes.” The government should tackle this issue in earnest.

The government’s comprehensive survey of living conditions shows that in 2012, 16.3 percent of children below 18 were members of households that earned less than half the mean income for a household, classifying them as being in a state of relative poverty. This figure, Japan’s worst ever, represents a sharp increase from the 1985 level of 10.9 percent.

An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development survey puts Japan’s poverty rate at 15.7 percent — above the 13.3 percent average of the 34 OECD members, and fourth worst in the group of developed countries. A majority of single-parent households in Japan — 54.6 percent — are in relative poverty — a figure higher than that of the United States.

While the ranks of high earners have been growing in Japan, the number of people with irregular jobs, which are unstable and low paying, has also been rising, accounting for roughly 37 percent of the nation’s workers today — including many of the nation’s 1.2 million single mothers. In 2010, single mother households had an average annual income of ¥1.81 million.

Local governments should fully utilize a new scheme that began in April to supplement the welfare program under the Livelihood Protection Law. They should enlighten residents about the system, which is meant to help people who don’t qualify for the traditional livelihood assistance program but still need public support, and readily extend help in areas such as job training, housing assistance, family finance advice and study assistance for children.

The outline of programs to combat child poverty adopted by the Abe Cabinet lists five priority areas for which action must be taken within five years. They include beefing up scholarships for children from poor families and continuing education for parents so that they can get better jobs.

While such actions may help impoverished households, what’s more important is for the government to push policies designed to reduce the widening gap between the rich and the poor, such as increasing the number of full-time workers and raising the minimum wage.

The government also should take budgetary measures to enable poor children who perform well academically to receive higher education. This is crucial to break the chain of poverty, in which poor children tend to receive limited education, which in turn restricts their future job prospects.

Share prices in the Tokyo market may have hit the highest level in 15 years under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic policies. But if the child poverty problem is left unattended, the Abe administration could squander the nation’s “most important treasure,” as its outline calls Japan’s children.