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Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe’s pledge to create a society in which struggling people can receive second chances, while being assured of a public safety net, isn’t getting through to those living on assistance.

A 32-year-old Tokyo woman who declined to be named expected the safety net to help her recover from psychological disorders. But after going on welfare in December, she said, unexpected pressure has made her condition even worse.

She even had to struggle to find the sunless Tokyo apartment she moved into at the end of March, with rent low enough to be covered by the relief program, because several landlords refused to let a welfare recipient be a tenant.

Cabby Yasuhisa Mizukami, 53, of Kanagawa Prefecture, tried to land a new job while on welfare for three months until July. However, he had no choice but to return to the odd hours of the job he had quit for health reasons.

A 47-year-old man in Aomori Prefecture has considered starving to death or committing suicide after being out of work for six years despite contacting nearly 50 firms since returning to his hometown after he was laid off.

Having declared himself bankrupt and living on his mother’s pension income of 1.2 million yen a year, the man said, “With no money, I can’t even hunt for a job.”

The number of households on welfare has stayed at record-high levels since topping 1 million in October 2004, though back in 1992 it had fallen below 600,000, according to welfare ministry data.

As the ultimate safety net, the program is designed to ensure a minimum standard of living for people with no assets, no family support and scarce employment chances, regardless of reasons, until they regain financial independence.

The rise in recipients is often cited as evidence of widening economic disparities resulting from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s structural reforms.

Abe, the front-runner in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Sept. 20 election to pick Koizumi’s successor, is addressing the issue by promoting what he terms “second challenges.”

A government task force Abe launched in March called for helping relief recipients to support themselves — one of his basic policies if he becomes prime minister.

Under the strain of growing fiscal burdens, the government in fiscal 2005 shifted the program’s focus from mere protection of the poor to assistance for them to become independent, because recipients have increased and their dependence has become longer.

A welfare ministry official said the number of recipients could decrease if the current economic recovery continues and “shows a movement similar to that of the unemployment rate.”

However, many recipients find it difficult to get off welfare. Nearly half of them are elderly, and more than half of the remainder are ill or disabled, said Norihiro Oyama, a caseworker who runs a Web site offering advice on the program.

Even if they are physically capable of working, the likelihood that they will find only unstable jobs with low income is discouraging. After all, welfare benefits are often higher than what they would earn after tax and social security costs, Oyama said.

“Caseworkers encourage clients who potentially can work to keep trying, but it is a contradiction if those who do their best are not paid accordingly and people on welfare are better off with a stable life,” he said.

The Tokyo woman acknowledged that her welfare income of more than 150,000 yen a month is just about enough to meet her daily needs, while the welfare ministry’s 2005 white paper says more young workers have come to earn less than 1.5 million yen a year.

A 42-year-old single mother in Hokkaido who has been on the public welfare program since her employer went bust and began to suffer from panic disorders said she has never been advised by welfare officials how to resume work.

She is also pessimistic about her 20-year-old daughter, who is taking high school correspondence courses.

“I think chances are slim in Japan for children of poor families to gain access to higher education and find jobs they like,” the woman said.

Yoshiko Miwa, a writer covering female abuse victims who are often on welfare, said the public relief system does not help recipients attain a job with a higher income.

For instance, a 30-year-old single mother she is acquainted with who is trying to enter a professional career has had to resort to earning money as a sex worker to save money for training, while illegally receiving welfare, Miwa said.

The Tokyo woman said that as a recipient, she feels that criticism against people on welfare tends to come from a beleaguered population.

But she argues that the problem lies not with the standard for relief but instead with the circumstances in which more and more people get lower incomes than they would on public assistance.

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