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Fukuoka consumer co-op adapting to changing face of poverty by offering recovery loans

Michiko Yukioka, center, and other support specialists discuss a household expenses list provided by someone who has come in for a consultation at Green Co-op Fukuoka's lifestyle recovery office, on Aug. 21, 2018, in Fukuoka's Hakata Ward. (Mainichi)

FUKUOKA -- "With a monthly income of less than 200,000 yen, you run a deficit of 80,000 yen a month. Rent is high, and you have a lot of debt," said Michiko Yukioka, 69, while looking at the household finances of a single mother during a consultation in late August here in southern Japan.

Yukioka, the head of the lifestyle recovery project promotion office of Green Co-op Rengo (federation), discussed issues and solutions for the single mother together with household finance support staff at the Green Co-op (GC) Fukuoka. The federation does product planning and distribution management for affiliated cooperatives including the Fukuoka organization.

The GC has been involved in lifestyle revitalization efforts since August 2006, when multiple debts owed by consumers became a serious social problem. Along with counseling about how to make ends meet at home, the program stands out for also offering loans to cover everyday expenses.

The idea for the project was born some 14 years earlier, when the office of GC Fukuoka was located near JR Hakata Station and Yukioka and the others noticed the homeless sleeping in the area around the train station. Asking themselves, "Should we just glance at them as we pass by or should we build a society where they can start over?" led to the idea for a shared pool of money gathered from co-op members to help one another.

GC Fukuoka's plan came together in the 2015 fiscal year with a support system for those in poverty to become independent. The aim of the system was to help those who came in for consultations out of their situation before they were forced to rely on social welfare. Behind the start of the program was the diversification and complication of the factors behind people falling into poverty, such as an increase in the number of irregular workers and older individuals living alone, along with the aging of social recluses, called "hikikomori" in Japanese, and the growing period of their withdrawal from society.

While they imagined that mainly people who had accrued debt from wasteful spending would come to the consultation office after its establishment, instead, users they never expected came in one after another. Self-employed operators of long-established businesses, unable to adapt to the changing times, often take out consumer loans, and those subject to the restructuring of the business are left in a continuous cycle of debt in order to make ends meet.

"This is the path that regular people end up walking," explained Yukioka. "Even if everything seems fine at first glance, there are many people who are simply living by putting up a front."

The circumstances under which people have fallen into poverty have become more varied in recent years. The results show up in the numbers, Yukioka says. When she asks someone who has come in for a consultation which expenses they are most worried about, various factors for their fall into poverty can be extracted. For example, in a household carrying the burden of an expensive electricity bill, there is a member of the family who is a social recluse. There are also cases where a household composed of an elderly couple is weighed down with bills for medical treatment, but the added pressure on the household pocketbook to buy food for a family pet is the straw that is actually breaking the camel's back. Then, if one is hospitalized or something else requiring emergency payments occurs, the couple tumbles from their tightrope lifestyle into even more debt.

Even if the person coming in for advice is aware that there is not enough money, they have no idea how to begin to improve their situation. That is where the strength of the lifestyle support staff comes in to show them the way. When advice is given based on the numbers constituting a person's financial situation without getting emotional, the person themselves can also find points of agreement. Staff members make the rounds of lawyers and other experts with those seeking help to sort out their debts and think together about solutions like preparing low-cost lunchbox meals and other ways to save money. Hearing the consulter murmur that they can finally see hope in getting out of their situation keeps the consultants motivated.

Along with financial support for lifestyle expenses like that offered by GC Fukuoka, there is also job, housing and child support, and more offered by municipal governments depending on the situation in the area. In the job support, the recovery process sometimes starts by getting people back into the daily rhythm that comes with working. For children, they are educated in hopes of breaking the cycle of poverty.

Still, there are many municipal governments that are lacking in the knowledge and manpower, making it difficult to enact these programs as imagined.

As for GC Fukuoka's loan program, 41 people used the cooperative loan system between April and July. Some 70 percent were employed, including some as regular workers at companies, but 23 of them had an annual income below 2 million yen, once again highlighting the multifaceted nature of the problem.

"Now, even if you do have a job, the salary can be low," said Yukioka. "Even those on pensions are seeing their payments decrease, and I often hear, 'I can't make a living on that.'"

As a pioneer in household finance counseling, Yukioka continued, "As the population ages, the problem will only grow worse in the future. We must continue carrying out this project."

(Japanese original by Emi Aoki, Kyushu News Department)

This is Part 7 in a series.

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