The Upper House last month passed a law to promote ways to deal with the needs of children living in poverty. The law is significant for stating clearly that the central and local governments are obliged to carry out measures to alleviate the problem of child poverty in Japan. Its main aim is to support the education of children from poor families and to ensure equal opportunity in education.
Although the law is a step in a right direction, it has a serious flaw in that it fails to set a numerical goal to reduce the poverty rate for children. It requires the central government to adopt an outline of concrete measures that are expected to include financial support for the education of poor children and to help low-income parents find jobs. The central government must keep in mind that its commitment to pulling children out of poverty will be tested when it writes its policy outline.
Efforts to achieve the law’s main aim are important because the gap between the rich and the poor is expanding in Japanese society, especially since the adoption of a neoliberal economic policy under the Liberal Democratic Party government in the 2000s. The percentage of children from poor families who join high schools or universities is lower than that of children from well-off families. This situation helps to perpetuate poverty.
Drawing inspiration from its free tuition system for high school students, the central government should expand grants and scholarships for university students from poor families. It also should consider improving other financial support to help needy students with their education.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, education spending by the central and local governments in Japan stood at only 3.6 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product in fiscal 2009, lower than the OECD average of 5.4 percent and the lowest among the 31 countries for which comparisons are possible.
Although the Central Council Education in April recommended that Japan’s education spending be raised to the level of other OECD countries, the Abe Cabinet decided to use the OECD data only as reference material.
The relative poverty rate, expressed by the percentage of people whose disposable income was below half the median value, is quite high for Japanese children. In 2009, the rate was 15.7 percent for children younger than 18. The dividing line in determining the rate is the annual income of about ¥2.5 million for a family of four. The government should take the figure seriously and adopt measures to improve it.
From August, the Abe administration will reduce the core part of the livelihood assistance for people on welfare. Since financial support for poor children in such things as school supplies and lunch is linked to the core part of livelihood assistance, some children may become ineligible for support. At present, 16 percent of public-school students in grades one through 9 are receiving such support. Japan’s future lies in the hands of its children. The central and local governments must ensure that children from poor families will be able to keep receiving the support necessary to complete their education.