In February, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was castigated by local media for keeping public schools open during a snowstorm. One of his reasons for not closing schools was that many parents relied on them not only to look after their kids during the day, but also to feed them. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that 21 million American children receive free or reduced-price school meals every day, sometimes twice a day if they eat breakfast at school. “It’s a big deal to some parents,” de Blasio told reporters. This explanation didn’t satisfy critics, who said the weather made it too dangerous to commute, and anyway school is for education, not “meals on wheels,” as one person tweeted.
Another mayor recently made a decision that also affected poorer schoolchildren, though the media paid much less attention. Except for NHK, almost no one covered Toru Hashimoto’s decision to end Osaka’s Kodomo no Ie (Children’s House) project this spring. Desperate to cut the municipal budget, Hashimoto says the program, which for the past 30 years has provided free after-school centers for any child regardless of age or financial situation, is not necessary since there are publicly run gakudō hoiku (schoolchildren care) facilities that do the same thing. Supporters of the Kodomo no Ie system counter that gakudo hoiku only accepts elementary school students, and older children also benefit from Kodomo no Ie. And while kids from households on welfare can go to gakudo hoiku facilities for free, everyone else has to pay. As the manager of Sanno Kodomo Center in Osaka’s poorest neighborhood told NHK, the program is a pioneer in the field of social welfare because “it treats all children equally, and they feel that.”
NHK implied it’s natural to assume that the children who utilize the Sanno center are bullied at school simply because they’re poor, so it’s not only a safe place to hang out until their parents get home from work, but a refuge where everyone, regardless of home environment, gets along since no one is forced to be there. It is not a juku (cram school), though many kids do homework there. Mostly they play and talk. Ten years ago, the center started a cooking activity so that kids could learn how to prepare meals, since many eat dinner on their own. The children also participate in a neighborhood watch program, patrolling the surrounding streets, talking to homeless men whom they help and feed.
The report on Kodomo no Ie was part of the broadcaster’s “Heartnet” outreach series on how the widening income gap affects poorer children. Last year, the Diet passed a law to address impoverished children, though specific measures have yet to be outlined. NHK calls the situation a “crisis”: 15 percent of Japanese households receive some form of public assistance, but many more families who don’t qualify for welfare are still poor according to government standards, including more than 50 percent of households headed by single parents (read: mothers), 80 percent of whom work full-time. In spite of the new law, governments both central and local are, like Hashimoto, exacerbating the child poverty problem by cutting programs that were established to alleviate it.
An article in the March 28 Asahi Shimbun explains how the education ministry recently studied children’s scholastic performance in relation to household income. Surprisingly, it was the first time any such study was ever conducted. Not surprisingly, the study found that the higher the household income, the higher the student test score. In particular, parents who paid ¥50,000 a month on education “outside of school” scored 25.8 more points on the same tests than students whose parents paid nothing extra for education. But one expert who commented on the findings told Asahi that money alone doesn’t determine educational efficacy. Regular reading habits and meaningful conversations with friends and family are just as important. Parents with higher incomes are more likely to provide an environment where these habits develop, because the children are not forced to be alone when they’re not at school.
Despite the results of the study, the authorities continue to chip away at programs that equalize opportunities for poorer kids. A number of local governments have announced they will cut back on shūgaku enjo, a “study assistance” subsidy that provides qualified children with funds for supplies and school lunches. Because the central government has lowered the income level for people who receive welfare, these local governments are following suit, even though the Education Ministry has told them they shouldn’t. In Tokyo’s Nakano Ward, 3,200 households receive the subsidy, and after the new income standards go into effect, 200 will no longer receive it.
On the other hand, higher-income households started getting more money for education after the government last year removed the tax on gifts of up to ¥15 million if they are given to children to spend on education. This program is very popular among grandparents, and the association of trust banks where these funds have to be deposited to take advantage of the tax break predict that gifts will total ¥1 trillion by December 2015, when it is slated to expire.
Everyone knows the gift tax exemption was implemented primarily for economic and not educational reasons — as a means of freeing up that mass of stagnant savings held by older people — but the fact that the authorities approve benefits for secure households and need a “crisis” to prod them into helping out insecure ones indicates blurred priorities. As anti-poverty activist Makoto Yuasa pointed out on “Heartnet,” the new law is the first one ever passed by the Diet with the word “poverty” in its title, which can be seen as a sign the government is facing up to reality, though, considering how long it has taken it might still be years before anything is actually done about it, and when you’re a poor kid every day feels like an eternity.