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Did press reports of a lawsuit spur an amendment to the welfare ministry’s policy on benefits?

by

Contributing Writer

On Jan. 16, the Fukushima District Court ruled in favor of a woman and her daughter who had sued the city of Fukushima for cutting their welfare benefits. When the woman’s daughter was in high school, the woman received a grant scholarship to help her child prepare for university by covering expenses for things such as cram schools. The city office deemed the scholarship to be “income” and subtracted the amount from her family’s government assistance, because children in low-income households that receive benefits are expected to leave the household and find a job after they turn 18 or graduate high school. The court said the city could not deny the benefits and told it to compensate the family.

According to the Tokyo Shimbun, initial press coverage of the suit prompted the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, which administers government assistance, to issue a directive in August 2015 and instruct the city of Fukushima to pull back from reducing the family’s benefits. On Jan. 19, after the district court ruling, welfare minister Katsunobu Kato said he would instruct welfare offices nationwide to avoid such problems in the future.

Kato’s announcement would seem to indicate a change in policy, but until the Public Assistance Law is amended, local governments can still withhold benefits for children who plan to attend university. One of the conditions of the law is that welfare recipients take advantage of their capabilities in order to maintain a minimum standard of living. In other words, if anyone in a household can work, they must. A child who wishes to continue on an educational path beyond high school forfeits their share of the household’s benefits. The Fukushima District Court decision implies that the government’s condition effectively prevents children of low-income families from getting out of the poverty cycle by means of higher education.

The Tokyo Shimbun says a government panel in December recommended that the welfare system be revised so that it doesn’t deny young people the chance to attend university. The government, which plans to revise its welfare policy sometime this year, has taken the panel’s recommendation to heart. It does not plan to change the main structure of the law, but the government announced last week it would provide aid to qualified impoverished students (as opposed to welfare recipients) who wish to continue on to higher education starting this April.

In the Feb. 1 installment of its “Jiron Koron” series, NHK explained how “livelihood assistance” (seikatsu fujo) for low-income households is determined. Since 1984, the government has pegged these benefits to the expenditures of the bottom 10 percent of income-earning households in Japan. Presently, the money that a low-income household consisting of a married couple and one child spends to get by (not counting housing) is about ¥136,000 a month, so families that qualify for livelihood assistance are in principle given an equivalent amount in benefits, adjusted for age, location of residence and other factors. The idea is that in order to achieve “balance,” the welfare family should not be given more money than an income-earning family needs to survive.

The problem with this system, as NHK pointed out, is that financial circumstances are constantly changing. In 2004, the average annual income for the poorest 10 percent of households in Japan was ¥1.32 million. In 2014, it was ¥1.16 million. Since it follows that the less income a family has, the less it spends, livelihood assistance is constantly being reduced in order to achieve “balance.” This protocol is also used to adjust assistance for housing, education and other specific needs.

So when the government carries out welfare reform this year, 67 percent of families who receive benefits at present will have them either reduced or terminated. The plan put forward will save the government ¥16 billion over the next three years, a 1.8 percent reduction in the overall welfare budget.

Initially, the government estimated that 10 percent of all welfare households would be taken off the rolls after the revision, but when these households protested, the government said it would limit the eliminations to 5 percent. NHK says that 80 percent of welfare households contain only one person. A Jan. 25 Tokyo Shimbun article reported that about 40 percent of welfare households with children — about 150,000 — will see their benefits either reduced or terminated under the proposed revision. Benefits for the other 60 percent will likely increase.

Critics of the system say that it is not fair or balanced because many households that are eligible for benefits don’t actually apply for them. An article in the Yomiuri Shimbun last June said that only 15.5 percent of people designated as being “poor” by the welfare ministry received government assistance of any kind in 2012. In addition to income, applicants must submit information about assets. If an applicant has savings of more than a month’s worth of benefits, they can be turned down. If the applicant has a car, officials say it must be used for essential travel (driving to job interviews or visiting a hospital, for example). For people living in large cities that is not a problem, but for those living in rural areas, especially applicants with children, a car is often a necessity, but welfare officials may think otherwise.

According to columnist Eiji Oguma in the Jan. 25 Asahi Shimbun, surveys show that the majority of low-income earners say they don’t “support” higher welfare benefits because they think it will increase their taxes and social security payments, which are already a considerable burden — this despite the fact that many probably qualify for assistance. Oguma finds this reaction “paradoxical,” and blames the media for spreading the “suspicion” that people who receive benefits don’t deserve them. Coverage of the Fukushima woman’s lawsuit seems to refute that charge, but maybe it’s an exceptional case.