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'1 cup of noodles per day': COVID-19 aggravates poverty among isolated young in Japan

A staff member is seen delivering food to poor youths in this photo provided by the general incorporated association Masterpiece.

TOKYO -- Many young adults including those who moved out of foster care facilities in Japan have been isolated and pushed to the edge amid the coronavirus pandemic, with cries of help heard from people who can only afford one cup of instant noodles per day, or those who have to scrape by on a monthly salary below 30,000 yen (roughly $275).

    While many such youths have few people they can rely on or turn to, and are financially struggling, the pandemic is taking its toll on nonregular and part-time workers who have unstable employment conditions, and is also making it difficult to make interpersonal connections. Private bodies and other parties have set out to support those in need through donations, among other efforts.

    "I'm cutting down on my food costs, and I only have a cup of instant noodles every day," and, "My February salary fell short of 30,000 yen. My father has passed away, and as I'm estranged from my mother, I don't receive any allowances" is an example of the numerous cries for help sent in to Masterpiece -- a general incorporated association based in Chiba, east of Tokyo, that supports youths who become independent after leaving foster care facilities, foster homes assisting individuals to become self-reliant, and foster families. Many such individuals apparently seek food provisions along with living expenses.

    A 19-year-old woman living in Tokyo was admitted into a foster care facility when she was in her second year of high school. She was apparently a victim of violence and other abuse from her mother, and was placed under protection. Although she began living with her father and younger brothers after graduating from high school in March last year, her father never pays her expenses for food or daily living.

    In spite of this, the woman continues to work part time while also attending vocational school, and even looks after her younger siblings. Although she is far from financially secure, she said that she "was completely unaware of the existence" of the national government's coronavirus relief handout of 100,000 yen (about $916) per person, which was distributed last spring. This is because payments for household members were made altogether to the head of each household, and so her father apparently received all of the handouts.

    It is believed that there were many cases where young adults could not receive the benefits of the cash handout, like this woman, including individuals who lived alone while staying registered as a resident of their family's home.

    Furthermore, employment conditions were exacerbated under the second state of emergency in place since January this year, and her work shifts at the pharmacy decreased. As a result, her part-time pay fell from a monthly salary of around 60,000 yen (roughly $551) to about 30,000 yen -- half the original amount.

    She uses the money earned from her part-time job to cover her brothers' and her own food, drink and pocket money, but she says that there are often days when they do not have enough money for proper meals.

    The woman, who applied to Masterpiece to receive an allowance, said, "I had an unpleasant experience when I confided in a friend about my situation at home, so until now I found it hard to talk to those around me."

    A series of applications seeking support have been made to Masterpiece by youths who moved out of facilities or the homes of foster families. Marika Kikuchi, 33, head of the association, expressed fear over the current situation, and said, "Under the second state of emergency, there have been no temporary school closures or panic hoarding, and many people have had little consequences to their daily lives. On the other hand, the incomes of young people who work part-time or as irregular workers have only been on the decline, and some say 'it's even worse than the last state of emergency.' The plight of some people has become more hidden."

    Staff at Masterpiece, who have at least two years' experience working or volunteering at foster care facilities, offer consultations on the phone to young people seeking support. The association not only provides allowances, food support and information, but also "values its role as a place for emotional support," said Kikuchi.

    According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, there are about 27,000 children in foster care facilities across Japan who cannot live with guardians due to abuse and other reasons. Meanwhile, young people who leave such facilities at the age of 18 tend to become isolated as they barely have any adults they can rely on. There is also a large number of such individuals, both students and working adults, in financial difficulty.

    Although Japan's Child Welfare Act stipulates that facilities talk with those moving out and assist their transition to self-reliance, such support has been insufficient due to issues including a shortage in employees as well as funds. Therefore, the importance of aftercare for those who left facilities has been highlighted in recent years.

    In addition, even if they want to receive general public support, it is apparently difficult for individuals to reach the point of filing an application, which requires tracking down information and comprehending the system. Some say quite a few people have become hesitant about visiting local governments due to receiving ill treatment at consultation windows after explaining their situation of not having anyone to rely on.

    The Tokyo Voluntary Action Center (TVAC), run by the Tokyo Council of Social Welfare, conducted a survey between May and August 2020, as part of the Outreach Project, a support program in collaboration with major securities firm Goldman Sachs, and obtained responses from 1,851 people who moved out of foster care facilities.

    The survey found almost half of respondents answering that their living conditions had worsened compared to before the coronavirus. In addition, 40% of those who said they were currently working, including students, claimed that their income had decreased due to the pandemic. While 28% of respondents -- the largest group -- reported a decrease of between 20% and 40%, those who claimed that their earnings dropped by over 60% accounted for 13%, and 49 individuals lost their jobs.

    A screen showing responses to a questionnaire which targeted young adults who moved out of foster care facilities, and was conducted by the Tokyo Voluntary Action Center, is seen in this image. Numerous cries of help, such as, "I sometimes become scared that I'll end up dying like this," were made by youths currently struggling financially and isolated in society.

    Those who live alone constituted 60% of all respondents, and the isolation of youths in society is another concern alongside poverty. In the free description section of the questionnaire, there were comments suggesting that these young adults were facing physical and mental anxiety over not having any relatives to rely on, and were pushed to the edge by financial distress and other factors.

    The survey included comments such as:

    "My monthly salary dropped to about under half. I sometimes become scared that I'll end up dying like this."

    "I can't get a job no matter how much I do interviews or apply to job postings. I'm just wasting my time. My money has hit rock bottom. I've lost the energy to take action to try to break through the current situation."

    "I'm making a living by getting more part-time jobs. It's rough because I don't get enough sleep, and I also need to save up on expenses for entrance exams, entrance fees and tuition, as I want to go back to school."

    Under the Outreach Project, employee transportation expenses at foster care facilities were subsidized so that they could offer continuous aftercare to those who moved out, and emergency handouts of up to 100,000 yen were distributed to individuals who left such facilities. As it is unclear when the coronavirus will be contained, the project administrators gave additional aid of up to 60,000 yen to facilities in January this year.

    According to Mikiko Yamazaki, the head of TVAC, issues to be addressed surfaced in the questionnaire. She said, "The survey results showed that the take-home pay of over 80% of respondents didn't reach 200,000 yen (approx. $1,837), even before the coronavirus. Young adults raised in facilities, who were barely getting by to begin with, are being driven further into a corner from a decrease in income and difficulties in building interpersonal relationships, brought on by the coronavirus."

    Yamazaki also mentioned that the center has only been able to support individuals who have been able to keep good relationships with facilities, and showed deep concern over a further spread of poverty. "There is the possibility that those who are not in touch with the facilities they were raised at have fallen into an even more troubled state," she said.

    The Japanese government will place aftercare specialists for supporting children's transition to self-reliance at nationwide foster care facilities from the next fiscal year. Yamazaki said, "Rather than simply dispatching staff, I'd like the government to create a system that thoroughly covers various expenses, including transportation fees for staff visiting young adults who moved out of facilities, food and communications expenses used for consultations, costs of purchased supplies, operation-related expenses, and emergency handouts."

    The term "social care" is used in Japan, which expresses the doctrine that children who cannot depend on their parents should be raised by society as a whole. Yamazaki said, "We must gather the interest and support of many parties, including companies, local governments and private organizations, rather than just foster care facilities and the national government."

    (Japanese original by Shuji Ozaki, Regional News Department)

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