Ten years ago, in her book “Nickel and Dimed,” Barbara Ehrenreich chronicled her own experience as a subsistence-level American wage-earner during a period of relative economic vigor. She found a whole class of workers who lived — and would always live — from paycheck to paycheck. In the afterword to the recently published tenth-anniversary edition of the book, Ehrenreich says that in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, these people now have to compete for minimum-wage jobs. Ever since President Bill Clinton overhauled the welfare system, many poor Americans no longer qualify for assistance, which means they have nothing to fall back on. The “safety net” has turned into a “dragnet,” since, in line with the contraction of welfare eligibility, many state and municipal governments have effectively “criminalized homelessness.”

In spirit, Japan’s public welfare system is closer to America’s than it is to Europe’s. Citizens do not have a right to be supported by the government. Some claim they do and as proof point to Article 25 of the Constitution, which states that all people have the right to “maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living.” But Article 27 states that people have the right “and the obligation” to work. What this means in practice is that a person who applies for welfare must pass a rigorous screening process that can include personal disclosures, such as whether or not the applicant has access to support from a relative or even a lover. The applicant has to conform to certain notions of impoverishment. I’ve heard that in the 1960s and 70s, potential welfare recipients would hide “inessential” possessions like color TVs when a case worker visited.

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