The Abe administration on May 17 submitted a bill to the Diet to revise the Livelihood Protection Law. By imposing strict procedural requirements on applying for assistance, it ostensibly aims at reducing the number of people who unlawfully receive assistance known as seikatsu hogo (livelihood protection). But the revision, which greatly increases the application procedure’s red tape, will discourage many people who need assistance from applying for welfare, which is the final layer in the nation’s social safety net. Judging by past experience, the revision will lead to more deaths from hunger and suicide.
The Abe administration’s revision can be viewed as violating the spirit of Article 25 of the Constitution, which says, “All people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living. In all spheres of life, the State shall use its endeavors for the promotion and extension of social welfare and security, and of public health.”
After a series of suicides and deaths from hunger in and after 2006 in Kitakyushu and other parts of Japan, involving people whose applications for welfare were rejected, the health and welfare ministry made it clear that local governments must accept applications if they can confirm applicants’ desire to receive welfare assistance. The ministry went as far as to state that it is illegal not to accept applications just because the necessary documents have not been submitted and that, under certain circumstances, even oral applications could be acceptable.
Under the revision bill, however, applicants will be required to submit an application form plus documents stating the person’s income, assets, etc. The bill also allows local governments to ask relatives of welfare applicants to report their income and assets, and to ask their employers, banks and relevant public-sector organizations to submit related information. This could end up posing a heavy burden on people who are not wealthy themselves.
Such requirements will make it difficult for many people to apply for assistance, including those who have fled their homes to escape domestic violence, those who are homeless and those who suffer from mental illnesses. Others may simply give up applying for welfare because they don’t want their relatives to know that they will be on welfare or because the revised system will exert strong pressure on relatives to support the applicants and they don’t want to impose a financial burden on them.
Fiscal 2011 was the year when instances of people receiving livelihood assistance illegally is said to have been most rampant. Yet this amounted to only 0.5 percent of the total benefits paid out. Only 2 percent of Japanese citizens are on welfare. On the other hand, it is estimated that only about 20 percent of the people eligible for livelihood assistance are actually receiving it, much less than, for example, in Germany, where 60 percent of eligible recipients are receiving welfare.
The government has both a moral and constitutional obligation to ensure that all citizens have a basic living standard, and Japan’s chronically ailing economy and the growing gap between rich and poor make this all the more necessary. Yet the Abe administration is trying to shirk its responsibilities, and if its bill passes the lives of many will be placed in jeopardy. The Diet should kill the revision.