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Editorial: Osaka court ruling on welfare cuts a warning against ignoring social lifelines

The Osaka District Court has ruled the national government's reduction of base welfare benefit amounts illegal in a lawsuit filed by a group of welfare recipients in Osaka Prefecture.

    The court said the welfare minister overstepped their bounds and abused their discretionary power; it also nullified local government decisions to cut benefit amounts based on national criteria.

    The latest court decision was the second delivered among similar lawsuits filed with 29 district courts across Japan. In June last year, the Nagoya District Court dismissed a claim by welfare recipients after it recognized benefit cuts as within the welfare minister's discretion.

    In contrast, the Osaka District Court criticized what it said were mistakes and deficiencies in the national government's judgment process, and in its procedures to revise the welfare benefit criteria.

    At issue in the trial were cuts to "livelihood assistance" designed to cover food, utility and other expenses under the welfare program. The national government reduced livelihood assistance by as much as 10% between 2013 and 2015 by considering falling prices.

    Regarding this "deflation adjustment," the Osaka District Court viewed two points as problematic.

    First, the court raised questions about the national government setting 2008 -- when crude oil and grain prices surged -- as the starting year for assessing prices. As a result, the price drop rate from 2009 became significantly high. The court denounced this assessment method as unreasonable.

    Secondly, the court called into question the welfare ministry employing its own indices for price assessment instead of using the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications's consumer price index. The welfare ministry's indices are designed to over-reflect the price fall rate of items rarely bought by households on welfare, such as TVs and computers. The court therefore ruled that the welfare ministry's indices cannot serve as a calculation base.

    Japan's welfare system is based on the principles of Article 25 of the Constitution, which stipulates: "All people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultural living." The latest judicial ruling suggests that the reduction of a "social lifeline" without objective grounds is intolerable. The national government must take the verdict seriously.

    Welfare benefits also serve as a benchmark for deciding minimum wages and other base amounts. The Osaka court's decision could impact other systems in the country as well.

    Currently, some 1.63 million households are on welfare in Japan. Due to the spread of the coronavirus, a growing number of people have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet. In this pandemic, welfare benefits have a greater role to play.

    But prejudice against individuals on welfare persists among people around them. Many are also hesitant to use the welfare system out of fears their kin will learn of their status due to a system in which authorities contact relatives to check if they can financially support welfare applicants.

    According to a welfare ministry estimate, only around 40% of Japan's households eligible for welfare actually receive them.

    Despite the welfare system not fully functioning, when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was questioned about government measures to aid those struggling due to the pandemic, he told the Diet: "Ultimately, there is the welfare system." His comment drew a fierce public backlash.

    The government is responsible for guaranteeing minimum standards of living to all those in need of public assistance.

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