Sixteen percent of Japanese minors live below the poverty line, or about 1 out of every 6 children. Those figures put Japan at No. 10 among the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in terms of the rate of child poverty. And when it comes to the poverty rate of single-parent households, Japan comes out on top — or bottom, depending on how you look at it.

According to Yumiko Watanabe, the head of nonprofit organization Kids’ Door, which provides an after-school environment for children whose families cannot afford to send them to cram schools, the situation for children in single-parent homes is getting worse. The current Liberal Democratic Party government retained the monthly child allowance program, which is given to almost every household with children, implemented by the previous ruling Democratic Party of Japan. However, the special jidō fuyō teate, a “child support allowance” designated for the children of single parents, has never kept up with reality. In an interview with the website 8Bit News, Watanabe said that she and other NPOs, as well as a number of well-known scholars, have sent a petition to the LDP asking it to increase the allowance so as to halt the cycle of poverty that many of these families are trapped in.

According to the petitioners, there are 1.24 million single-mother households in Japan and 223,000 headed by single fathers. Of the total, 54 percent have incomes that set them below the poverty line — the highest rate in the developed world.

The situation for single mothers is worse than it is for single fathers. The employment rate for single mothers in Japan is 81 percent, also the highest in the OECD. However, only 39 percent of these women have “regular” employment, meaning jobs that offer benefits and a chance at advancement. The average annual gross income for all single mothers is about ¥1.8 million, and the welfare ministry says that it “isn’t unusual” for a single mother to work at least two jobs.

The amount of child support allowance a single parent receives depends on the number of children they are raising and the parent’s income. The maximum amount a parent can receive for the first child is about ¥42,000 a month. In order to get that much, the parent’s taxable income must be below ¥570,000 a year (about ¥1.3 million before tax). The amount of the allowance goes down as taxable income goes up.

Things change when more children enter the picture. For a second child, a parent receives a maximum of ¥5,000 a month, and for each child after the second, only another ¥3,000. The petition is asking the government to increase the allowance for second and all subsequent children to ¥10,000 a month. This will at least guarantee that the children of single parents “can eat well” so that they can adequately attend to their studies.

Moreover, school costs money in Japan, with costs racking up even at public schools, which are ostensibly free until secondary level. Watanabe points out that because Japan’s birthrate remains stagnant and its population is shrinking, the country’s future will be increasingly bleak if one-sixth of its population is not prepared to contribute to growth by receiving a proper education and, thus, a good job.

The main problem is the legal and social status of single-parent families. The welfare ministry estimates that 1 out of every 3 marriages in Japan will end in divorce. Any couple can end their marriage simply by going to their local government office and filling out a form, as long as both agree to the split. This process is called kyōgi rikon (divorce by mutual consent). No other country makes it that simple.

However, child support and alimony can only be mandated if the couple process their divorce through a court or an arbitrator. Under such circumstances, the judge or arbitrator can set the conditions for custody and child support. If, say, the ex-husband does not pay his required amount every month, the court can attach his wages or otherwise force him to pay. But there is no legal enforcement under a kyōgi rikon, no matter what one spouse verbally promises to the other. Kyōgi rikon account for 90 percent of Japanese divorces.

The welfare ministry says that close to 75 percent of arbitrated divorces include child support provisions, while only 30 percent of kyōgi rikon do. Realistically, however, only 19.7 percent of divorced single mothers, regardless of how they carried out their divorce, receive any sort of money from their ex-husbands. The rest have to make do with job income, family support and government assistance.

The situation is even worse for the 130,000 single mothers whose children were born out of wedlock. In order for a woman under such circumstances to get money from the father of her child, he has to legally acknowledge the child and then sign an affidavit saying he will pay. If the father does not want to cooperate, there is nothing the mother can do. And in the end, the main obstacle to securing child support from an ex-spouse or boyfriend is that it requires lawyers or other legal professionals, which cost money and time, neither of which these women usually have.

It’s likely the government will ignore the petition. In 2013, the LDP proposed a law to fight children’s poverty, but so far it only consists of nonenforceable guidelines. The budget for the policy is ¥874.2 billion, which pays for social workers, studies and child welfare consultants. Very little of the money goes directly to impoverished children and their parents. However, it does provide for the administration of Kodomo no Mirai Oen Kikin, a “fund to support the future of children,” which is basically a charity to which private citizens send donations. This money will then be distributed to poor children. In this way the government can say they are supporting at-risk children without placing a burden on taxpayers.

In contrast, the government gives tax breaks to families who want to build larger houses so that older people can live with their grandchildren and thus remove some of the child-rearing burden on the children’s parents. Under a scheme that began in April 2013, it also cuts inheritance taxes for people who contribute to their grandchildren’s education or even their weddings and child-rearing activities.

According to the Japan Fundraising Association, the amount of tax-deductible donations made to all charities in Japan amounted to ¥693 billion in 2012. Meanwhile, the amount of money people have contributed to their grandchildren’s education to avoid paying inheritance taxes has so far exceeded ¥1.2 trillion, the Nikkei reported in August.

Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. For related online content, see blog.japantimes.co.jp/yen-for-living.

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