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Social Spotlight: Welfare cuts may hasten Japan's economic decline

Plaintiffs and lawyers head to the Kanazawa District Court to file a lawsuit against the lowering of public assistance funds in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, on Oct. 15, 2014. (Mainichi)

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is reviewing whether the current "standard amounts of aid" under Japan's public assistance system are appropriate.

    The public assistance system is the embodiment of the Constitution's Article 25, which states, "All people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living." The system's standard aid amounts are designed to help cover basic living costs and fulfill the promise of Article 25. If a person's income doesn't reach the standard amount, even after totaling up all their resources, such as pensions and employment income, then the assistance system covers the deficit.

    Much about the system is misunderstood, so I would like to point out that public support is not granted to people with significant assets or those who can work but do not. To qualify for welfare support, an applicant must submit to an asset evaluation by local government officials, and supply proof that they are incapable of getting a job for medical or other reasons. In short, public assistance is a lifeline -- a last resort.

    During Japan's high economic growth period, when the living standards of the "average household" dramatically improved, the standard amount of aid awarded to households was raised every year to reduce the gap between the average and those left behind. The amount reached 60 percent of the average household's spending in 1984, and has been adjusted based on the economic conditions ever since.

    In recent years, however, critics have called the 60-percent standard "too high," and suggested the amount be changed to the average amount spent by the bottom 10 percent of households by income. Japan's poverty rate has been over 15 percent since 2000, so if the standard was set at that level, the minimum living standard guaranteed by the system will be much lower than the poverty line.

    Under pressure to lower the standard, the public aid has been lowered slightly each year. From 2013 to 2015, single-mother households were hit hardest by the cuts, with 40 percent of such families seeing their monthly support payments drop by an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 yen.

    A special feature of Japan's economic disparity is that rather than the rich getting richer, people in the lower income strata are falling further and further behind the middle class. Because of this, the drop in the living standards of those with incomes in the bottom 10 percent is the most severe.

    Tokyo Metropolitan University professor Aya Abe

    If public assistance is to continue to guarantee "the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living" promised in the Constitution, it should be sufficient to help cover basic living costs. But what would become of public aid if it were reduced to match the descent of the "bottom 10 percent?" Conversely, shouldn't the government move to raise minimum wage and pension payouts so that the bottom 10 percent can climb past the public assistance line?

    I am worried that rather than acting as a brake on Japan's economic decline, the public assistance system will become a mechanism to accelerate descent into darkness. (By professor Aya Abe, Tokyo Metropolitan University)

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