National / Social Issues | FOCUS

Japan’s child poverty rate eases, but strong public support still needed

Kyodo

Japan’s child poverty rate has improved amid a steady economic recovery, but experts say continuing support is vital to prevent social exclusion.

A Tokyo-based nonprofit organization called Kid’s Door offers free education to children from single-parent families or those on welfare that are living in relative poverty and often forced to drop out of high school or college due to financial difficulties.

Kid’s Door volunteers teach students — in a range from elementary through high school — who cannot afford supplemental tutoring, mainly in Tokyo.

“Those (underprivileged) children may look no different from others, but many of their parents are struggling to get food on the table every day,” said Yumiko Watanabe, head of the organization.

Children who attend lessons at Kid’s Door will be provided something nutritious to eat if they cannot afford to buy food on their own. One student had only ¥100 a day for food, Watanabe said.

Watanabe, who founded Kid’s Door in 2007, said she decided to create an organization to help children of low income families by offering them an avenue for study, raising their employment prospects and giving them a way to break out of the poverty cycle.

Watanabe, who moved to Britain in 2000 due to her husband’s business, said she was amazed by the country’s educational system, in which schools, communities and families all work together to provide equal educational opportunities to local children.

Upon returning to Japan the following year, she was shocked by the cost of basic education in the country.

She also learned that the nation’s child poverty rate was higher than the average among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries.

A 2015 survey report released recently by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry found that 13.9 percent of children under age 18, or 1 in every 7 children, were from families living on less than half of the national median household disposable income.

The relative poverty rate was 2.4 percentage points lower than in the previous survey for 2012, when it was the worst ever, at 16.3 percent. The 2015 poll reversed the trend, marking the first improvement in 12 years.

But the latest figure is still higher than the 13.3 percent average among 36 countries, including OECD members. Especially, the poverty rate among single-parent households was as high as 50.8 percent.

Alarmed by the situation, some municipalities have also moved to help children get out of poverty.

In June and July last year, Tokyo’s Ota Ward conducted a survey among fifth graders at local public elementary schools and their parents to determine how many were living in poverty.

In addition to assessing household income levels, the ward asked respondents if any had fallen behind on utility bill payments over the past year and if they spent money on recreation, among other questions.

To find out if children of low income families face social marginalization, the municipality also asked the parents if they can afford to give their children monthly allowances, Christmas presents, books or opportunities for nonacademic pursuits such as sports and music.

The ward said 21.0 percent of respondents fall into the category of households living in financial hardship.

A total of 46.8 percent of children in those households answered that they see themselves as “not worth anything” or “not worth very much.” That’s about 10 percentage points more than respondents not living in poverty.

Rika Ishikawa, director of the ward’s child welfare support division, pointed out children in single-parent families tend to feel alone, as their parents are often away working.

“We believe they can feel more positive (about themselves) if adults take care of them,” she said.

Ota Ward said it plans to deal with the poverty issue through community-wide efforts to look after local children in poverty, seeking support from residents’ associations or shopping malls.

Aya Abe, a professor studying child poverty and welfare issues at Tokyo Metropolitan University, welcomed the 2.4-point drop in the poverty rate among children in the 2015 survey as “a substantial improvement.”

But she added further public support will be indispensable to tackle poverty and the social exclusion of children, pointing out that the poverty rate among single-parent households still stands above 50 percent.

Abe stressed the need for continued government assistance and said public support should not be eased because of the improvement in the latest survey. “We cannot afford to rely only on efforts of volunteers and communities.”