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Social Spotlight: Ditching a middle-class mindset to tackle poverty

Participants in "Santa de run and walk" march for child welfare in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, on Dec. 23, 2017. (Mainichi)

Japan's poverty rate stands at 15.6 percent -- by no means a low figure. Poverty is particularly serious among the children who will build the nation's future, and urgent measures are needed to support them.

Naturally, many people agree with this. During the past House of Representatives election, most political parties called for the enhancement of a support system for children, by making preschool education free, for example. Few object to such proposals.

The problem is, who is going to pay for it?

To put it boldly, if Japan wants to establish generous measures for the poor in its fight against child poverty, then the middle class will have to shoulder a heavier burden. Japan is already laden with debt, which will be passed on to future workers -- that is, today's children -- so adding to the debt will do nothing for the next generation. Rather, it must be reduced, so the adults of today have no other option but to cover the cost of the measures. Yet there has been no clear debate over who should foot the bill.

Complicating the situation is that an extremely large proportion of people in Japan adhere to a middle-class mindset. They all think they are the ones who should be receiving assistance. At a recent gathering, I met a doctor who has remained concerned about child poverty and who has been actively addressing the issue. After exchanging opinions for a while, the doctor remarked, "Apparently I'm not going to get back the entire amount of pension premiums I've paid. Isn't that terrible?" She was making an innocent statement.

But the reality is, those premiums shouldn't come back. Public pensions are supported by taxes and premiums, and that has put pressure on finances for welfare and education. Taxing the wealthy class alone will not provide sufficient funds to repay the nation's debt and enhance social security. Clearly, we citizens, including those of us in the middle class, will have to pay higher taxes and social insurance premiums.

A recent survey by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare found that the median annual household income in Japan was 4.28 million yen. So households with higher incomes are above the halfway mark. Households earning 8 million yen or more a year, meanwhile, are in the top 20 percent.

Some 80 percent of households with children have annual incomes of at least 4 million yen, so most families raising children lie in the middle class or above. We must have these child-rearing households join in covering taxes and social insurance premiums.

In discussions about who should receive assistance, the focus often turns to "the middle class," "the masses" and "families raising children." But shouldn't those in the upper half of the income spread have a stronger perception that they are the ones who should be shouldering the costs?

Tokyo Metropolitan University professor Aya Abe

During the last lower house election, when politicians used terms like "all children," and "making education free," I don't think the point of who should shoulder the costs was made clear. Indeed, many households with children, elderly and young people might feel the crunch since the cost of living is not cheap. But still, I would have liked to have heard someone say, "This policy (of assisting children in poverty) is important. Let's support it together."

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