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Editorial: As the needy increase, how to save Japan's social security system?

"I can't remember everyone's faces," a caseworker who supports families on welfare at a ward office in Osaka said apologetically. "I probably remember about 40 percent."

By law, a single caseworker is meant to oversee about 80 households. The abovementioned caseworker, however, is in charge of some 280 households comprising the elderly. Every day, he's swamped with reports from contract workers who handle phone consultations and home visits.

The Osaka Municipal Government explains that it uses contract workers to make up for the shortage of caseworkers. However, one 73-year-old woman on welfare says, "I know the workers are busy, so I feel like I shouldn't bother them."

The Japanese social security system exists on a foundation of social insurance programs such as health insurance, employment insurance and pensions.

Public assistance is the last bastion for people who have fallen through the cracks of social insurance schemes, and cannot sustain a minimum level of living even after taking into consideration the possibility of support from family and the ability to work.

In recent years, there has been a torrent of seniors with no pensions or very small ones requiring public assistance; every year the number of households on welfare reaches a record high. In fiscal 2016, a monthly average of some 2.14 million people from approximately 1.64 million households were on welfare. Senior households whose members were aged 65 and over, of which 90 percent were single-person households, accounted for the majority of households on welfare for the first time.

Not to mention the fact that in less than 20 years, children of the baby boomer generation will become seniors themselves. Many of those who graduated from college during the so-called "employment ice age" between 1993 and 2005, including children of the baby-boomer generation, work not as regular full-time employees but as irregular employees such as contract or temp workers, earning average wages lower than that of other generations. That is why an explosion in the number of seniors with no savings and otherwise straitened circumstances is expected in the near future. If we continue as we have, Japan's social security system will collapse.

Osaka is a microcosm of that system, waiting to collapse. Those on welfare comprise 5.3 percent of the city's population, a figure much higher than the nationwide average of 1.7 percent. This means that one in every 19 Osaka residents is on public assistance.

During Japan's period of high-speed economic growth from the 1960s to the early 1970s, masses of laborers flocked to Osaka. But the country's economic bubble burst just as those workers were entering old age, and many lost their jobs. In addition to single mothers and seniors with no family to rely on, an increase in the working poor -- as a result of the growing income gap -- pushed the number of people requiring public assistance up.

Under then Mayor Toru Hashimoto, the Osaka Municipal Government beefed up countermeasures against the illicit reception of public assistance. As a result, the number of households on welfare went down for the first time after peaking in 2012.

Some ward governments in the city of Osaka issue public assistance recipients cards with their photos on them to ensure that they indeed are the authorized recipients. But there is deep-rooted criticism that such measures have the potential to reinforce prejudice against those on welfare.

In the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Odawara, municipal government employees overseeing public assistance were found to have been wearing jackets with slogans warning welfare recipients not to take public assistance for granted. The incident was criticized as violating the human rights of those on welfare.

There is no end to online posts that relentlessly attack welfare recipients using derogatory language, despite the fact that most people are receiving public assistance lawfully. It reflects an intolerance that is seen in hate speech directed toward Korean residents of Japan who some mistakenly believe are given "special privileges."

Government spending on public assistance is already nearing 4 trillion yen a year. In an attempt to curb such expenditures, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has rolled back the criteria for receiving public assistance in three stages since fiscal 2013.

The government is preparing for a re-examination of the criteria for the provision of welfare that takes place once every five years, the next of which is set for fiscal 2018. Livelihood assistance is expected to be reduced, primarily in large cities.

The lowering of public assistance amounts is not the only problem. Ever since the Abe administration rose to power, welfare offices have doubled down on their investigations into the families of welfare applicants and checks of welfare applications to keep the number of people deemed eligible for public assistance down. According to one theory, only around 20 percent of low-income households that possibly fulfill welfare criteria are on public assistance.

Those found eligible for public assistance can receive medical care free of charge. However, those deemed ineligible for welfare must join the national health insurance program; those who are unable to pay the premiums for national health insurance end up uninsured. Today, some 210,000 households must pay full price out of pocket for any medical treatment.

Clinics and hospitals have been compelled to provide free/low-cost medical service to those without national health insurance through a system in which the medical facilities cover the patients' co-pays. Around 7.8 million people made use of this scheme in fiscal 2015.

Japan prides itself on having universal health care, but the "universal" part is already disappearing.

Quick-fix measures to keep welfare provision down will not prevent the dismantling of the social security system 20 years from now. We stand at a point in history in which debate on ways to sustain the safety net must be confronted head-on.

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