Abe seen set to squeeze the poor

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Mammoth cuts in welfare benefits starting next month point to the government’s desire to skimp on social security and instead boost military capabilities in hopes of fighting alongside the United States, according to veteran lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya.

Noting the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is keen to amend the pacifist Constitution, Utsunomiya believes the implication is clear: Japan is gearing up to join the U.S. in the event of war.

“In order to do that, you need to boost military spending. So (the government) is considering cutting a variety of social security payments to secure enough resources for military expenditures,” he said. “The welfare slashed this time is just the beginning of that process.”

A former president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, Utsunomiya is known as a strong human rights advocate, spending most of his career aiding the poor and debtors.

From August, welfare payments will be trimmed by an average of 6.5 percent over the next three years — the largest cuts since the end of the war. This is projected to help the government save around ¥67 billion, which Utsunomiya said “happens to” exceed the ¥40 billion hike in the defense budget laid out by Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party in January.

Another possible incentive behind the cuts, he said, is the conservative LDP’s long-festering frustration over what it sees as the overly lenient welfare policy of the Democratic Party of Japan, which it ousted from power in December. In its official newsletter in April last year, the then-opposition LDP condemned the DPJ-led government as “oblivious to promoting self-independence among the poor.”

The issue is highly charged. An example was observed last year when it was learned that the mother of popular comedian Junichi Komoto had continued to “indulge in” and receive welfare benefits despite her son’s affluence. The controversy prompted calls for greater stringency in the way municipalities scrutinize the eligibility of welfare applicants.

Dovetailing with this apparently growing mood of intolerance was an ordinance adopted in March by the city of Ono, Hyogo Prefecture, urging its citizens to report any welfare recipients they spotted gambling at such places as pachinko parlors.

But Utsunomiya warns that such a trend risks further aggravating public prejudice against those on welfare and discouraging the poor from applying for aid. The reality is that such “inhumane municipalities are abundant now,” he said.

“Receiving welfare should be considered a legitimate right. It’s nothing you should feel indebted for, or ashamed of,” he continued, adding the government seems to be turning into a bully bent on browbeating the poor even further into the margins of society.

“It would have made sense if the government targeted the rich instead, for instance by raising corporate taxes. But knowing their support is crucial to win elections, the LDP just avoided confronting them,” he said.

While the public backlash against those on welfare is seemingly on the rise, Utsunomiya stressed that some aspects of the reality of those in need of assistance remain little known.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the number of welfare recipients nationwide reached a record-high 2.16 million in March, but still accounted for a meager 1.8 percent of the total population.

Even more problematic is that Japan’s welfare system covers only 18 percent of those who are probably under the poverty line and in need of the support, while in European countries like Germany, Britain and France, the rate stands at 50 to 90 percent, according to a JFBA report.

Utsunomiya further pointed out the number of illicit beneficiaries continues to hover around 0.5 percent, giving the lie to the misguided public belief that the welfare system is being overrun by ineligible applicants.

Current recipients aside, the intended cuts, when implemented, are likely to affect an estimated 10 million people nationwide pulling in less than ¥2 million in annual income, Utsunomiya warned.

Welfare payments are often cited in deciding the amount of income under which the poor can qualify for other public assistance, such as school expense subsidies and tax exemptions. The cuts will reduce the threshold, denying more lower-income households access to a range of much-needed subsidies and other benefits.

Yet despite the nation’s widening income inequality, the LDP seems determined to “make applying for welfare a more undesirable option” and to reinforce the stigma surrounding the system, Utsunomiya said, citing the ruling party’s abortive attempt in June to steamroll a bill that, if passed, would have changed the welfare system for the worse.

That legislation would have empowered municipal officials to enquire about the income of a welfare applicant’s family members and relatives, to discourage the poor from turning to the state for help. Underlying the proposal, Utsunomiya said, is the LDP’s pet philosophy that families must support each other, a euphemistic way of saying social security payments must be downsized.

“The structure of Japanese families has increasingly diversified. They may no longer be together under the same roof, and more single mothers are coming up,” he said. “So the whole concept of ‘mutual support within families’ is totally outmoded.”