Inflated fertility rate used for pension bills

Ministry allegedly sat on lower figure

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Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry officials said Tuesday they had estimated a record-low fertility rate in 2003 of 1.29 almost two weeks before the contentious pension reform bills were pushed through the Diet on June 5, based on a rosier figure.

The government’s pension reform package was based on a more optimistic fertility rate of 1.32 for the year, forecasting it to eventually recover to around 1.39. A figure above 2.08 is needed to sustain the population.

Opposition lawmakers had demanded that the latest figure for 2003 be disclosed before the government-sponsored pension bills were passed.

Some have speculated that the ministry intentionally delayed the announcement of the figure because the government’s pension reform plan was based on a more optimistic scenario.

The revelation that the government had already estimated the actual figure to be lower than that used in its pension reform package could fuel further public distrust of the system.

Responding to a written request from Takashi Yamamoto, a House of Councilors member of the Democratic Party of Japan, the welfare ministry said the head of the division in charge of demographic statistics reported an interim result of the latest data to the head of the ministry’s statistics and information department on May 24.

But the ministry only released the data on the afternoon of June 10, after major newspapers reported the figure in front page stories that day.

The total fertility rate is a calculation of the average number of children that a woman will bear during her lifetime.

A senior official of the ministry’s statistics division said Tuesday the interim figure was “around 1.29.” He claimed the figure was tentative and not ready for official release.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda meanwhile defended the ministry.

“You need to analyze various factors even after figures are obtained,” he told a regular news conference. “Usually it takes several days before publication.”

The government’s fertility rate forecasts have been consistently overoptimistic for more than two decades, forcing it to repeatedly revise down pension premium revenue assumptions.

A higher birthrate prediction is politically favorable for the government, which has been trying to bathe its social security plan in a rosy glow.

Pension reform will be one of the key topics in the July 11 Upper House election.

Welfare minister Chikara Sakaguchi declined to say whether the ministry intentionally delayed the release of the figure.