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Editorial: In debate on free education, haphazard measures won't suffice

Discussions by the government's "council for the 100-year life" on issues such as making education free are now in full swing, with the board set to come up with a policy initiative costing a total of 2 trillion yen before the end of the year.

    To ensure the sustainability of a rapidly aging society such as Japan, it is crucial to expand assistance to younger generations, not least of all in the form of alleviating the strain of paying education costs. It is important that no matter the circumstances of one's family, people are able to receive the education that everyone needs.

    However, making early childhood education and day care services free for all requires over 1 trillion yen. Unless we secure a stable source of funds for the plan, we will end up either going into debt and placing the burden of paying it back to future generations, or be forced to shave off money from other social security programs. Haphazard measures will only throw off the delicate balance of social security programs overall, and put sustainability at risk.

    Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pledge to make early childhood education free seemingly emerged out of nowhere in the campaign leading up to the general election. Abe says that the funds will come from a portion of the increased tax revenue expected from a consumption tax hike from the current 8 percent to 10 percent, which was originally meant to be used to repay the government's debts. This is virtually the same thing as government education bonds that postpone repayment.

    Indeed, younger generations are refraining from having children because of the high cost of raising them, and because of this, the cost of early childhood education and day care has already been lowered for low-income families. Some critics say that making early childhood education and care free for all families would amount to pork-barrel spending on families who could've afforded it on their own.

    If, for example, only households earning approximately 3.6 million yen or less a year were eligible for free early childhood education and day care, the cost to the government could be kept at a little over 100 billion yen.

    Some double-income families earn relatively high incomes, and it is not uncommon for such families to seek high-quality day care or early childhood education even if it means spending more money. Many people would prefer to have the option to send their children to day care close to their homes or with short notice, over free day care or early childhood education programs. Unless compensation and other labor conditions improve for day care workers, the long list of children waiting for spots at day care centers will not cease to exist.

    It is also important to provide more afterschool care options for children in elementary school, and for men to participate more in child-rearing.

    About half of all university students are on "scholarships," as many student loans are called in Japan, and the current situation in which such students are forced to spend years after graduation trying to repay the loans with interest must be changed.

    Because of the lack thus far of assistance provided to younger generations, we face a situation that requires many measures to be put into place. The government must come up with a thorough plan and confirm how it will secure funds to make "all-generation" social security programs a reality.

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