The Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to maintain the minimum standard of wholesome and cultured living. Thus to help those struggling to make ends meet, the government provides financial aid according to poverty level while encouraging them to get back on their feet.

Recent government data showed that as of March, more than 2.02 million people were receiving welfare, coming close to the record 2.04 million in 1952. The number of households on welfare hit an all-time high of 1.46 million.

Another report by the welfare ministry showed that as of April more people in the quake-hit Tohoku region have applied and are now on welfare.

The expanding budget has been a headache for many municipalities, which cover 25 percent of the costs. Aiming to revise the system, the central and local governments have been exchanging ideas since late May.

This week’s FYI takes a look at the basics of the “seikatsu hogo” welfare benefits system:

Who is eligible for benefits?

If the total income of a household is below the minimum living expense set by the health and welfare minister, the difference will be paid by the government as welfare benefits.

To apply for benefits, people need to visit the welfare office of their municipal government. The city checks the income, assets, health conditions and other criteria to determine whether the applicant qualifies for public assistance. Applicants usually receive an answer within two weeks, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare ministry.

How is the benefit amount determined as well as the minimum living expense?

Welfare benefits are paid for eight categories — basic living expenses that cover food, clothing and utilities; housing costs; compulsory education; medical care; elderly care; cost for giving birth; skill training; and funerals.

The amount one household can receive depends on many factors, including family size and ages, income level and whether it is in an urban or rural area.

The minimum living expense is calculated by adding standard amounts specially set for each category. For example, a household with a 30-year-old single mother with two children aged 4 and 2 in Tokyo would receive a set amount of ¥193,900 for food, clothing and utilities. However, if they live in a rural area, the amount would be ¥158,300, according to a ministry figure.

If the mother earns ¥100,000 in Tokyo, she will only receive the difference of ¥93,900 in welfare benefits.

Payments are basically made in cash, but services such as medical and elder care are provided as part of the welfare system.

What are the rights and obligations of recipients?

For the welfare funds they receive, taxes and public dues are deducted. There will be no revisions to the amount of support once it is decided unless the welfare office determines a justifiable reason.

Recipients must use every means possible to lead independent lives, including assets and skills. The government also urges them to find a job should their conditions allow them to do so. Recipients also must follow guidance from caseworkers in their local welfare office to spend their money wisely.

What is the general makeup of the recipients?

Households with members 65 and older make up more than 40 percent of the recipients, followed by households with single mothers with children younger than 18, who make up 34 percent. The rest are mostly people with mental or physical illnesses or serious injuries.

Of the total, more than 70 percent are single households.

The past few years have seen an increase in recipients aged between 20 and 59 who still qualify to be in the workforce. Experts say this reflects the difficulty of finding work amid the tough economic times, and that some people have lost the will to work and are increasingly isolated from society.

Do foreigners qualify for public assistance?

The public assistance law stipulate that only Japanese nationals are eligible, but in practice some foreign residents are covered by welfare. This is because of a humanitarian decision by the welfare ministry in 1954 that municipal governments must accept applications from foreign nationals who are in dire need of support. Currently, special permanent and permanent residents, spouses of permanent foreign residents or Japanese nationals, and those who received refugee status from the government are eligible.

Welfare ministry figures show that during fiscal 2009, more than 444,000 households with foreign nationals, or 731,000 foreigners, received public assistance. In terms of monthly average, some 37,020 households with foreign nationals, or nearly 60,960 foreigners, received the assistance that year, according to the figures.

Some people in the quake- and tsunami-hit prefectures who were receiving benefits before March 11 were removed from the list after they received special compensation or relief money. What happened?

According to news reports, municipal governments regarded the first batch of relief money from the Red Cross as income and thus halted welfare benefits.

The welfare ministry in May ordered municipalities not to regard the relief aid as income as long as the money is used to buy items to rebuild their lives. But critics say the criteria are vague and thus decisions varied by municipality.

Some have accepted the halt in assistance, but others have claimed the relief aid differed in nature from ordinary income. Local governments reportedly said those who will need help can reapply when necessary.

On June 21, the Fukushima Prefectural Government said it will not regard the initial relief aid from the central and prefectural governments as income, but will regard as income the compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Co. for the nuclear crisis.

What issues are currently being discussed to revise the system?

Faced with the rise in the welfare budget, the Japan Association of City Mayors in October submitted a proposal to the central government urging it to pay the total cost of public assistance.

The mayors are also asking for stronger punishment for those who take advantage of the system and more effective ways to get younger recipients into the workforce.

The meeting of the central and local governments that began in May will compile a reform plan by the end of August. The ministry aims to reflect the recommendations in its budget proposal for the next fiscal year while preparing bills to revise the system. But some observers, including the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, criticize the closed-door nature of the meetings.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp