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Gov't 'people investment' policy belied by coming public assistance cuts

TOKYO -- Starting in fiscal 2018, public assistance payments to cover basic living expenses will be reduced over three years. Meanwhile, as part of its "human resource development revolution," the government has announced plans to help households receiving public assistance put their children through university. How will this shift impact children living in poverty?

In total, the government is cutting 18 billion yen (about $165 million) from living expense support. In addition, the budget for supplements for single-parent households will be cut by 20 percent on average, or 2 billion yen. At the same time as 20 billion yen is being lopped off welfare assistance, the monthly 10,000 yen stipend paid to every family on welfare for each child of junior high school age and under will be expanded to cover high school students, costing 4 billion yen. All this adds up to a 1.8 percent cut in support payments compared to fiscal 2017, or a drop of some 16 billion yen.

Meanwhile, the economic policy package announced by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in December last year promised "investment of policy resources in children and the child-rearing generation" as part of the aforementioned "human resource development revolution." Abe himself made much of "strengthened support for the children of households on public assistance."

Under the new policies, nearly 70 percent of households receiving social welfare will see their benefits cut. However, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has said that cuts have been "limited to a little less than 40 percent of such households with children." A Public Assistance Act reform bill passed by the House of Representatives on April 27 would provide a lump sum payment of between 100,000 yen and 300,000 yen for children of these households who go on to university. The government and ruling parties aim to have the bill pass the House of Councillors during the current session.

So, what does all this add up to for households receiving public assistance? Nagoya City University associate professor Keita Sakurai calculated the benefit amount for four types of urban households with children based on the same models used by the welfare ministry. His results suggest that single-child households with just one parent will see their monthly stipend rise by about 1,000 yen (about $9) to 148,680 yen, but two-child single-parent households will get about 9,000 yen less than they do now. Two-parent homes with one child will get about 3,500 yen less per month.

As of 2014, about 280,000 of the 2.13 million people receiving public assistance were aged 18 or younger.

"Even though there should be a strong commitment to living expense support to eliminate child poverty, the government is actually reducing the standard of such aid," noted Sakurai. "Children and their households could very well end up in even more distress."

During the general election in late 2012, the now ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) pledged a "drastic re-evaluation of public assistance," including a 10 percent cut in average welfare benefits as a general rule. In the three years since 2013, the Abe administration has slashed welfare spending by 6.5 percent. According to Sakurai's calculations as well, single-parent, single-child households have seen their monthly aid payments sink by more than 8,000 yen.

The newest review of public assistance payments is based on a welfare ministry survey covering both households receiving aid and low-income households not getting benefits. It concluded that "consumer spending by households on public assistance is greater." However, the study has been criticized for using the very poorest demographic in the comparison, and critics have slammed the methodology as being specifically designed to produce results that would provide a rationale for welfare cuts.

One single mother in her 40s in the Kanto region, who lives with her 17-year-old son, told the Mainichi Shimbun that she has had bouts of depression and cannot work, getting by on about 90,000 yen (about $826) per month in living cost stipends including supplements for single-parent households. However, the family budget is reaching its absolute limits as food costs rise. "If our financial situation worsens further, I may have no choice but to die with my son," she said.

The government has emphasized that some families will end up better under the revised aid structure, and Prime Minister Abe has insisted that "it is not an across-the-board reduction." Nevertheless, deep worries persist.

"The foundation of daily life is being whittled down continuously, and I can't see how these cuts are consistent with the 'human resources investment' policy (promoted by the government)," commented Hanazono University professor Atsushi Yoshinaga.

(Japanese original by Joichi Sato, General Digital News Center, and Makiko Nishida, Lifestyle News Department)

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