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Social Spotlight: Poverty among elderly women a serious problem

Elderly women listen to the voice of a fraudster during an anti-crime class in Osaka's Chuo Ward on July 13. (Mainichi)

You may have heard about this issue before, but I would like to mention it again: The poverty rate among women aged 65 and over is 22 percent in Japan.

From 1985 to 2012, the poverty rate among these women decreased by 2.3 percentage points. However, poverty fell by 5.7 percentage points among men -- more than double the figure for women -- in the same age group over the same period. In other words, many elderly women are being left behind despite improvements in Japan's social security system that are helping reduce the elderly's poverty overall.

The situation of the poor in Japan has changed a great deal over the past 30 years. The issue used to be thought of as primarily affecting the elderly, but now it is considered a problem for young people. If one looks only at men, poverty is most rampant among 20- to 24-year-olds. If one also considers factors not included in the poverty rate calculation, such as savings and assets, then the difference between the older and younger generations of men becomes even more pronounced.

This demographic shift in poverty is not unique to Japan. The same phenomenon is seen in many developed nations that have been building extensive public pension systems. Youth poverty is of course a major issue, but in this article, I would like to focus on the poverty of elderly women, which is far from being solved, even while the pension system is in its prime and will only diminish from now on.

First of all, there is an enormous difference in the poverty rate among women aged 65-plus depending on marital status. Fourteen percent of women with spouses are below the poverty line -- much lower than the figure 30 years ago. On the other hand, 35 percent of unmarried elderly women are in poverty. This figure has also improved significantly over the past three decades, but is still remarkably high. The rate among widows is 30 percent, and 42 percent among divorced women -- both higher figures than those of 30 years ago. In other words, even after three decades, the poverty rate among women without spouses remains high, and it is not improving.

A majority of women -- even married women -- will eventually be without a spouse in old age, as men do not live as long as women on average, and many women are younger than their spouses. That being the case, poverty is a problem for every person reading this article. Not just for women, but for men with close female kin -- mothers, wives and daughters.

In the past, the problem of poverty among older women was solved by their adult children inviting them to live together. Now, however, there are many people who simply cannot live with and take care of their elderly mothers. In fact, only around 40 percent of senior women now live with one of their children, and there are twice as many elderly women living alone than elderly men.

Tokyo Metropolitan University professor Aya Abe

In pure head-counting terms, women aged 65-plus will be this country's fastest-growing demographic. Yet society shows little interest in their poverty. Why is this? The problem has been around for a long time, so I suppose it does not surprise people or seem "fresh." However, conditions for the elderly have become more severe these days, including the hike in premiums for public nursing care insurance. In this situation, should we not tackle poverty among elderly women head-on? (By professor Aya Abe, Tokyo Metropolitan University)

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