Needy find welfare elusive, demeaning

Screening shortcomings, social attitudes keep safety net at a distance

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After living homeless in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward for seven years, a 53-year-old former leather tanner was finally helped off the street last year with public livelihood assistance.

It was not his homelessness or long-term unemployment that made him qualified for assistance, but rather the possible consequences of such a life: he was taken to a hospital after passing out from hypertension.

“I am lucky to be hypertensive,” he said. “My friends from my homeless period still live on the street, collecting garbage.”

He receives about 80,000 yen in aid a month and lives in an apartment in Katsushika Ward. He earns an additional 50,000 yen or so working as a receptionist at a welfare facility in Taito Ward.

“Even after my life bottomed out, applying for living assistance was the last thing on my mind, because I was told that even being homeless would not qualify me for such aid,” he said.

The protracted economic slump has exacted a heavy toll on the lower-income strata of society, as seen in the steady rise in recipients of public livelihood assistance over the past nine years.

A survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry shows that an average of 805,169 households per month received public aid in fiscal 2001, or 8.65 out of every 1,000 households. The number was up 37 percent from 1992, when it bottomed out at 585,972.

The public welfare assistance is in line with the Daily Life Protection Law, which took effect in 1950, as part of the constitutional right to “maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living.”

But even the fiscal 2001 public assistance rate — 0.865 percent of total households — lags behind other industrialized countries’ welfare coverage.

A 1999 welfare ministry white paper said the aid coverage rate in other industrialized countries averaged around 10 percent.

Experts say Japan’s system has failed to protect many in need of public aid, including the soaring homeless population, which is believed to now top 25,000.

According to the latest survey by the welfare ministry, there were 24,090 homeless people nationwide in 2001.

Needy often screened out

Megumi Mizuta, head of the Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Furusato-no-kai, which helps homeless people apply for aid, said many local governments reject applications from those deemed to be of employable age who have no chronic illness.

The welfare ministry views 65 as the cutoff age for employment and requires that applicants have a fixed address, effectively barring the homeless from receiving aid.

“Although welfare aid is the final safety net, local screening methods drop many who are in dire need of assistance amid these harsh economic times,” Mizuta said.

Households whose income can’t cover the minimum cost of living, a figure set annually by the welfare ministry, should receive assistance to bridge the gap.

For example, the monthly cost of living for a household consisting of a 33-year-old husband, a 29-year-old wife and a 4-year-old child ranges between 163,970 yen and 127,080 yen, depending on the place of residence, according to current calculations.

Additional aid to cover expenses that include housing, medical bills, education and other costs may be available depending on recipients’ living conditions.

A welfare ministry spokesman said many of the recipients of livelihood assistance are people over age 65 whose pension payments are below the minimum standard of living. They usually get a combination of livelihood, housing and medical assistance.

Single-mother households and people with mental or physical handicaps also account for many of the aid recipients.

As requested by Diet committees when the Social Welfare Services Law was enacted in 2000, the welfare ministry began intraministry discussions last year over amending the life protection law.

Officials said they intend to revise the 1950 law to meet the reality of today’s poverty.

Drawn out and demeaning

Many applicants are discouraged by the drawn-out and often demeaning screening process as well as the age requirement, while local governments are hesitant to expand the scope of welfare — a system that can trace its roots to a past welfare ministry policy of limiting the number of recipients.

Municipal governments must cover 25 percent of the cost of livelihood assistance. The rest comes from the welfare ministry.

In 1981, the ministry urged local governments to limit aid recipients in line with its “appropriation policy,” after it was revealed the previous year that mobsters in Wakayama Prefecture were inappropriately receiving livelihood assistance.

Some local governments actively pared the number of welfare recipients, often by setting quotas, experts said. The number of recipients decreased drastically up until the burst of the bubble economy in 1991.

The restrictive policy led to several court battles waged by welfare recipients whose allowances were halted, as well as applicants who were denied aid by their local governments.

Masaoki Hibino, a welfare office counselor at the Funabashi Municipal Government in Chiba Prefecture, said the needy often fall through the safety net due to misguided or arbitrary interpretations of the Daily Life Protection Law that anyone able to work be screened out.

“Many municipalities judge the ability to work in accordance with applicants’ physical condition, thus medical records or age,” Hibino said. “But I believe those who have no chance of working, due to the economic slump or their circumstances, including being homeless, should be within the scope of protection.”

Hisao Ino, chief of guidance and support in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s welfare division, claimed the reason municipalities are reluctant to expand aid stems from their lack of manpower.

At present, case workers must visit the homes of recipients to check living conditions or provide guidance on how to improve their life. In Tokyo, the visits are customarily made every one to two months. The workers also check to determine if recipients are abusing the aid.

The welfare ministry recommends that local governments have one case worker per 80 recipients, but the recent drastic increase in people getting help has made it impossible for many municipalities to comply, Ino said.

In the western Tokyo suburb of Machida, for instance, each case worker handles roughly 140 recipients, he said.

“In many municipalities, the screening of new recipients is constrained by financial and personnel shortages.”

Confounding the constraints on welfare is a traditionally negative notion widely shared by the public toward such aid and its recipients. This has made it difficult for municipalities to allocate more resources, Ino said.

The attitude against welfare in part stems from Japanese society’s obsession with “self-dependence,” said Koichi Shimizu, a professor of social welfare issues at Meiji Gakuin University.

Stigma against welfare

“Modern-day capitalism is based on self-dependence, thus there is the view that people on welfare are second-class citizens,” Shimizu said. “Even social workers are not fully free from that notion and tend to unconsciously act in a condescending way toward aid recipients.”

The system gives the impression of being a charity due to its arbitrary screening methods, which has exacerbated the prejudice against welfare, he said.

Current practice requires that all members of an applicant’s family be informed that aid has been requested.

Recipients meanwhile must submit a written agreement to allow local governments to question their employer and bank to investigate their financial situation at any given time. They must also cooperate fully when case workers come by to inspect how they live.

The law should be amended to underscore that it is a basic right to receive aid if in need, Shimizu said, adding that the current tight screening measures should be replaced by clearer standards and unconditional support.

The recipients themselves in many cases feel stigmatized by welfare.

“Though I need it, I am still not free from the sense of guilt that I am receiving government aid,” said a 54-year-old former homeless man who has been receiving livelihood aid while residing in a nursing home in Sumida Ward since August. He noted that it was his mental impairment that qualified him for the aid.

“I often wonder about my fellow homeless friends, who still live on the street, but I don’t feel like visiting them because I feel ashamed about my current life,” the man said.