Childrearing benefits provided to single-parent households will be increased and the financial burden of fees for nursery schools and kindergartens will be reduced for such families with many children. These are part of countermeasures against child poverty worked out by a government panel, and funds will be allocated for these measures from the fiscal 2016 state budget.
This is the first increase in benefits for the second child of single-parent households in 36 years and for the third and more children in 22 years. The decision to increase financial support for childrearing, which the government had kept postponing, deserves high valuation. However, the increase in assistance for childrearing is limited to single-parent households with at least two children.
The child poverty rate hit a record high of 16.3 percent in 2012. In other words, one in six children in Japan is in a state of relative poverty. In particular, over half of single-parent families are in a state of poverty, the worst level of all developed countries. The government must expand assistance measures in nursery, education and medicine among other fields.
The Law on Measures to Counter Child Poverty was enacted in 2013, and an outline of child poverty countermeasures was worked out last year. However, no numerical target for reducing the child poverty rate was incorporated in the policy outline and no specific measure to extend financial assistance was implemented, raising questions about the effectiveness of the policy.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has slashed welfare benefits. The administration has been reluctant to extend public financial support for households in a state of poverty while demanding that parents fulfill their responsibilities to raise their children. Opinions also persist among members of the general public that parents are primarily responsible for bringing up their children. However, 80 percent of mothers in single-mother families are working. About half of them are employed on a part-time basis, earning an average annual income of only 1.81 million yen. These single mothers pay their health insurance and pension premiums from such low incomes. Since they typically have two or more jobs and work long hours, many of them struggle to care for their children, such as preparing meals for them. Such difficulties have adversely affected children's nutritional and sanitary conditions, causing the children to lose enthusiasm about their studies.
In other words, economic hardships have placed children's livelihoods in a crisis.
Such serious situations involving children have become latent, and made it difficult for authorities to extend a helping hand to families in poverty. There are countless cases in which children who are dressed normally and have mobile phones are actually living on instant noodles and snacks. These children themselves are unaware that such dietary habits are unhealthy, and their parents cannot ask the public for help because they would be embarrassed about exposing their practices and fear that they would be held responsible for the poor dietary conditions of their children.
There are a growing number of facilities across the country where children receive learning support as well as meals. The government has set a goal of securing such facilities for about 500,000 children a year. However, few children who are isolated at schools and in regional communities and in a state of serious poverty spontaneously visit such facilities. Therefore, it is not enough just to wait for such children to drop by.
The countermeasures that the government worked out recently can address only some of the problems involving child poverty. As such, the government should implement further measures to fundamentally address the issue.