Child poverty policy falls short

The government’s fiscal 2016 measures to help children and their families in poverty include beefing up child allowance for single-parent households and financial support for parents attending vocational schools for skilled jobs. These are only a small step toward eliminating the growing woes of children suffering from poverty in this country. The government is urged to take further steps to achieve the wide-ranging goals set under the law enacted in 2013 to combat this problem.

Currently, a monthly allowance of ¥42,000 is provided to a family made up of a single parent and one child. The household will receive ¥5,000 more for a second child and an additional ¥3,000 for each subsequent child. Beginning in August, the increment will reach as high as ¥10,000 for a second child and up to ¥6,000 each for the third and any additional children. The increase will be reduced if the parent’s income exceeds a certain level.

Nursery school and kindergarten fees paid by low-income households will also be reduced. Currently, the nursery school fee for the second child in a single-parent household is half the regular rate, and the third and any additional children go for free if the first child is of preschool age. But if the first child is in elementary school, the fee for the second child goes up to the regular rate, and that for the third and any additional children is at half the regular fee.

Beginning in April, regardless of the age of the first child, the nursery school fee will be half the regular rate for the second child and zero for the third and any additional children if the household earns ¥3.3 million or less a year. A similar step will be taken for a family with an annual income of ¥3.6 million or less that sends their children to kindergarten.

Although these measures will likely be of help, the child allowance system for single-parent households has a problem — children are no longer eligible when they turn 19. The cutoff is believed to discourage many children of single-parent, low-income families from going to college. The loss of higher education opportunities for youths from poor households tends to restrict their job prospects, thereby making it difficult for them to get out of poverty themselves.

In addition to heeding requests for extending the coverage of child allowance through the age of 20, the government should consider greatly expanding scholarship programs and interest-free loans to youths from low-income families.

In pushing the measures to help reduce the impact of child poverty, government leaders, lawmakers and bureaucrats should pay serious attention to the big picture. According to a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey, a record 16.3 percent of children under the age of 18 in 2012 were living in households that earn less than half the nation’s median income. This means that one out of every six children belonged to a family with an annual income of less than ¥1.22 million. Japan’s child poverty ratio topped the 2010 average of 13.3 percent among OECD member countries and was in the highest one-third. The poverty ratio shot up to 54.6 percent for children in single-parent households. A major factor behind this situation is the tendency among businesses since the 1990s to cut back on regular full-time employment and increase their ranks of low-paid irregular workers.

The Abe administration adopted a policy outline last August to push measures to combat child poverty. But it turned out to be a collection of steps already taken and failed to set numerical targets to reduce the poverty ratio for children. In October, the administration started collecting donations from individuals and businesses for a fund to “support the future of children” — designed to provide financial aid to nongovernmental organizations engaged in such activities as helping children of poor families with their studies and delivering meals to them. But as of the end of November, the fund had received only slightly more than ¥3 million.

With sufficient funding, these NGOs would be able to offer various services to needy parents and children that the government can’t efficiently provide. But public interest in the scheme may remain sluggish if it gives the impression that the administration is not serious enough about solving the problem and is relying on private-sector money. The administration should first demonstrate its seriousness by allocating enough funding for necessary measures to fight child poverty, ranging from support for children’s education and parents’ vocational training to direct financial aid for poor households.

Thorough research on child poverty will also be crucial, so that accurate information on the issue can be disseminated to raise public awareness and in turn help the government work out more effective measures to address the problem.