Bottom line of welfare

A weekly magazine in April reported that the mother of an entertainer earning an annual income of ¥50 million has been receiving public livelihood assistance known as seikatsu hogo (literally livelihood protection). Through a blog of a Diet member and other media, the entertainer was identified as TV personality Junichi Komoto. The matter was even taken up in the Diet. After a series of mass media reports, the mother applied to have the welfare benefits terminated.

Mr. Komoto apologized in a May 25 news conference for the fact that his mother continued to receive welfare benefits even after his income became large enough to support her. There has emerged a sort of Komoto-bashing, but it is difficult to pinpoint a clear legal violation on the part of Mr. Komoto and his mother.

Utmost care should be taken so that the episode will not lead to public disdain of people living on welfare as well as people applying for welfare. Any political move that results in making it psychologically difficult for people to apply for welfare must be prevented. In the wake of the Komoto affair, the Liberal Democratic Party’s panel on livelihood protection has made it clear that the party will submit to the Diet a bill to revise the livelihood protection law so that it strictly enforces the duty to support needy relatives.

The LDP is also calling for a 10 percent cut in the level of public assistance. Health and welfare minister Yoko Komiyama also told the Lower House that her ministry will consider lowering the benefits. Apparently some politicians and bureaucrats are taking advantage of the Komoto affair to make it difficult for people to apply for welfare and to reduce the level of public support for people on welfare.

One wonders whether these politicians and bureaucrats are familiar with the difficult situations faced by people who have no alternative but to rely on welfare.

Seikatsu hogo is the last resort in Japan’s social safety net. The bottom line should be to make sure that those who need to receive livelihood protection get it without fail.

Mr. Komoto’s mother started receiving public assistance about 15 years ago after she became sick and could not work, and because Mr. Komoto’s annual income was less than ¥1 million. He said he started providing money to his mother five year to six years ago after he was contacted by a social welfare worker. He said this year he agreed to a request by a social welfare worker to increase the amount of money he gives his mother. He said he will return the amount of welfare benefits that his mother received after he began earning a good income. He added that because his job and income are unstable, he worries that he could lose his source of income at any time.

The number of livelihood protection recipients started to increase in fiscal 1995 following the burst of the economic bubble. As of January 2012, a record 2,091,902 people were on welfare, more than during the years of confusion right after World War II.

The fiscal 2012 budget for livelihood assistance is about ¥3.7 trillion. It is estimated that it will reach ¥5.2 trillion in fiscal 2025.

In fiscal 2010, 25,355 people illegally received benefits, costing ¥12.874 billion, about three times the amount 10 years earlier. But according to Seikatsu Hogo Mondai Taisaku Zenkoku Kaigi (the national congress to cope with problems related to livelihood protection), a civic group for improving the livelihood protection system, the percentage of illegally received benefits among total livelihood assistance payments was rather constant at 0.34 percent to 0.39 percent in the five years starting with fiscal 2006. Thus, the group says, illegally received benefits are not a significant factor in pushing up the total cost of livelihood protection.

Illegal receipt of public assistance should be stopped. But efforts to stop it should not include denigrating people on welfare or applying for welfare, or closing the door of livelihood protection to people who are truly in need.

According to the civic group, the percentage of people living on welfare is relatively small in Japan — 1.5 percent in fiscal 2010. That compares with 9.7 percent in Germany (2009), 9.3 percent in Britain (2010) and 5.7 percent in France (2010).

The idea of strictly enforcing the duty to support relatives carries the danger of making it difficult for needy people to apply for welfare. Ms. Komiyama proposed to require relatives of welfare recipients to prove that they cannot support them. This proposal could disconcert a person who has no choice but to apply for welfare due to abuse or domestic violence.

Faced with the prospect of getting such proof from relatives, the victim would likely give up applying for welfare because the new process would result in his or her address and other information being disclosed to an abusive or violent relative. In the worst case, such a victim might choose to commit suicide. Even if an applicant is not abused or a victim of domestic violence, he or she may not want to let relatives know that he or she is applying for welfare.

Recent moves to station former police officers at social welfare offices, ostensibly to prevent illegal receipt of welfare benefits, should be discontinued as it puts psychological pressure on applicants to give up going through the application procedure.

The cause of the recent increase in the number of welfare recipients is the long period of economic stagnation. Politicians, bureaucrats and people should realize that receiving livelihood protection is not something to be ashamed of; it is a right guaranteed by Article 25 of the Constitution, which in part says, “All people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living.”

It must be noted that Article 25 also requires the government to endeavor to promote social welfare and security and public health.