The poverty rate rose to a record 16 percent in 2009 and the number of welfare recipients reached an all-time high of 2.09 million this January, according to the government. But what is even more shocking is the finding a recent study that about 1 in 3 women in Japan aged between 20 and 64 who live alone are living in poverty.
“People need to recognize that it’s a serious issue and acknowledge that without measures to tackle poverty, especially for the working poor, there is no future for Japan,” Aya Abe, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (NIPSSR), told The Japan Times recently.
Abe, who has been researching the subject for 15 years, said poverty is especially affecting women living on their own, mostly because of the large number who are nonregular workers and the wage gap between women and men, which has been narrowing but remains a problem.
“The poverty ratio among women living alone has always been high, and this still remains the case today,” she said.
According to a study Abe conducted last year, the “relative poverty rate” among women aged 20 to 63 and living on their own came to 31.6 percent in 2010, while the corresponding rate among men was 25.1 percent. The rate stood at about 11 percent even among married women, the study found.
The relative poverty rate applies a threshold to determine the number of people in society who are unable to maintain a normal life based on the living standards of the majority, Abe explained.
More specifically, it shows the percentage of households surviving on less than half the national median in terms of disposable income. In the 2009 data, the poverty threshold for a single-person household was calculated using ¥1.25 million as the threshold for annual disposable income.
Poverty fell under the spotlight when thousands of temporary workers were laid off during the 2008 global financial crisis, and a village, or “haken-mura,” was set up in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park to provide them with shelter, food and help finding new jobs.
But Abe said the village failed to highlight the issue of women living under the poverty line because of the roughly 500 people who sought help at the park, only a few were female.
That phenomenon occurred because women feel unsafe in such shelters and try desperately to cling to their abodes, not because there are few women living in poverty, Abe explained. This results in poverty-stricken women largely slipping under the radar, although the ratio of poverty is higher among women than men, she said.
In 2010, the rate was even more serious in the case of women over 65 and living alone, and among single mothers, nearly 50 percent of whom were found to be living in poverty, impacting the lives of their children.
But the survey highlighted nonregular workers as the worst-affected group, due to their lack of job security, Abe said.
“There are some support methods for those who lose their jobs or homes, but hardly any measures have been implemented for nonregular employees earning between ¥100,000 and ¥120,000 a month,” she said.
The central and local governments provide job training to support low-wage, nonregular workers, but such moves haven’t been sufficient to enable them to land full-time employment, she said.
“At a time when even female university graduates can only find jobs as nonregular employees, it’s really hard for those living in poverty to earn salaries above the poverty line because many of them have dropped out of education at an earlier stage,” she explained “But it’s difficult to take measures because assisting them would require a fundamental overhaul of the nation’s entire labor market.”
If no reforms are made, however, these women who are currently aged between 20 and 64 will likely continue to suffer because of their tiny pensions, which will ultimately increase the already bloated number of welfare recipients.
“There are ways (to escape from poverty), but they are extremely narrow and rocky paths,” Abe said. “Suggesting single poverty-stricken women should seek job opportunities abroad or try to establish their own businesses sound fine . . . but this is extremely difficult in practice. It can’t be achieved solely through their own efforts.”
Until now, Japanese society has remained largely ignorant of these women’s plight. Crucial in tackling the issue is raising public awareness to such an extent that it forces the government to implement more and better measures, Abe stressed.
People also need to realize that “spending money on such measures is an investment for the nation’s future,” she said.
“Public awareness of the problem and pressure to reform the system are vital, as I believe the government’s policy alone will not solve the issue.”