Ten years ago, in her book “Nickel and Dimed,” Barbara Ehrenreich chronicled her own experience as a subsistence-level American wage-earner during a period of relative economic vigor. She found a whole class of workers who lived — and would always live — from paycheck to paycheck. In the afterword to the recently published tenth-anniversary edition of the book, Ehrenreich says that in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, these people now have to compete for minimum-wage jobs. Ever since President Bill Clinton overhauled the welfare system, many poor Americans no longer qualify for assistance, which means they have nothing to fall back on. The “safety net” has turned into a “dragnet,” since, in line with the contraction of welfare eligibility, many state and municipal governments have effectively “criminalized homelessness.”
In spirit, Japan’s public welfare system is closer to America’s than it is to Europe’s. Citizens do not have a right to be supported by the government. Some claim they do and as proof point to Article 25 of the Constitution, which states that all people have the right to “maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living.” But Article 27 states that people have the right “and the obligation” to work. What this means in practice is that a person who applies for welfare must pass a rigorous screening process that can include personal disclosures, such as whether or not the applicant has access to support from a relative or even a lover. The applicant has to conform to certain notions of impoverishment. I’ve heard that in the 1960s and 70s, potential welfare recipients would hide “inessential” possessions like color TVs when a case worker visited.
The authorities will support you as long as you understand your place vis-a-vis someone who is “productive.” In America, welfare recipients are often characterized as leeches who have learned how to scam the system. In Japan, the equivalent negative image is less harsh but, given the context, perhaps more effective. Receiving welfare is a social stigma. The idea is to shame recipients into getting back into society, where “everybody” works for a living. That’s why when Japanese people get their first full-time job, they are dubbed shakaijin, or “members of society.”
According to a recent documentary broadcast by NHK, this strategy may no longer work. The number of welfare recipients nationwide is over 2 million, the highest it’s been since the system was launched in 1950, after which it continued to drop steadily until bottoming out in 1996. Central and local governments now give out ¥3.4 trillion in welfare benefits a year, equal to 10 percent of all tax revenues.
The local government with the heaviest burden is Osaka, where 17 percent of the city budget goes to welfare payments. NHK found that a substantial portion of the recipients are able-bodied males between the ages of 20 and 60. In the past, long-term welfare recipients belonged to one of three categories: elderly people, single mothers and the chronically ill or handicapped. The remaining recipients were people who were temporarily out of work, meaning their ranks were constantly changing. The number of unemployed in Japan hovers just under the 5 million mark, and as one case worker explained, most of the new additions to the welfare rolls are men who were employed as haken (contract workers), non-regular employees who could be laid off easily. After thousands of these workers lost their jobs in the financial meltdown of 2008, the Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare issued a directive to local governments to ease up on the requirements for receiving welfare. In principle, people who can work don’t qualify, but in order to provide relief to this large group of newly unemployed workers, the government said that they now did.
Many are still on welfare, a situation that has as much to do with a change in social psychology as it does with continuing economic stagnation. At one point in the documentary, NHK visits the apartment of a man in his early 50s who used to work for a real-estate company. He receives ¥126,700 a month, at the end of which he has ¥40,000 left over. Though it’s much less than what he received when he was working, he says he’s “comfortable,” which is why he has no desire to look for a job.
With each additional example NHK presented, it became clear that these men were not merely lazy. They have no desire “to be in society.” One reason is the unstable haken lifestyle. As one welfare recipient in his 20s pointed out, he doesn’t go to employment offices because he’s afraid of “being asked to move away” from his wife and newborn daughter. As long as he can survive on welfare, he’ll stay with it. But the problem goes deeper. One Osaka caseworker says that most of the 60 men assigned to him have “lost the will to work,” and that has led to self-isolation. In this regard, the strategy of keeping people off welfare by threatening them with social ostracism backfires: These men prefer to be ostracized.
An underground economy has built up around these men. Yakuza organize illegal gambling dens with free food and drink to attract welfare recipients. And since these men also receive free medical care, doctors ply them with drugs they don’t necessarily need and then charge it all to the public health insurance scheme. The recipients turn around and sell the drugs on the black market.
The central government is now asking local governments to refuse welfare payments to men who can work. That’s easier said than done, especially with the present job market. Employers are increasingly demanding specific skills, if not experience, even for minimum-wage jobs such as food service. Many of these unemployed welfare recipients, including those who want to work, don’t qualify. According to antipoverty activist Makoto Yuasa, who was interviewed on the program, taking away welfare could be “dangerous,” because the next step down for these men is “nothingness.”