Policy proposals for creating an economic and social environment conducive to childbearing and child-rearing should be an important issue for voters to consider in next Sunday’s Lower House election. An accelerating decline in the birthrate, followed eventually by a smaller labor force, will have a great impact on economic activities, social security, medical services and the future shape of families and communities.

Japan’s population is likely to begin shrinking this year, two years earlier than had been predicted by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. Since the population fell by 31,034 in the January-June period, according to a preliminary report by the ministry, experts do not rule out the possibility that the population may shrink for all of 2005.

In 2004, the fertility rate — the number of children on average that a woman is expected to give birth to during her lifetime — dipped to an all-time low of 1.2888. That’s much smaller than the 2.08 needed for the population to sustain itself.

The recently published White Paper on National Lifestyles for fiscal 2005, which deals with the “consciousness and lifestyle of child-rearing generations,” points to the fact that married couples of these generations feel childbearing and rearing exact too heavy an economical and psychological burden. Yet they also say they want to have, on average, 2.5 children.

The white paper calculates how much money is needed to raise children to the age of 21 (as of 2003): 13.02 million yen for the first child, 10.52 million yen for the second child and 7.69 million yen for the third child. It also shows that households with less income tend to remain childless. Among households with annual income of less than 4 million, yen about 20 percent are without children — about twice the corresponding percentage for households with more annual income.

The report suggests that a decline in the number of permanent jobs for young people is contributing to a deterioration of conditions for childbearing and rearing. Included is the observation that the average real income of child-rearing generations has barely increased in the past 10 years, that about 20 percent of university graduates are now working as part-timers, and that the annual income of part-time workers in the younger generation is only about 1.2 million yen — about 30 percent of the income earned by permanent job holders in the same age group.

What deserves attention is the fact that marriage between part-time workers has been increasing. The white paper says, though, that just because both husband and wife work does not mean that they should necessarily be regarded as earning enough income to have children.

Conversely, when both husband and wife hold permanent jobs, it is often difficult for them to devote enough time to children, mainly due to the number of hours spent at the workplace. Young parents are finding it difficult to ask people other than their parents to help them in child-rearing.

Political parties are proposing to beef up special allowances for households with children as well as the childbirth allowance itself, to encourage families to help increase the national population of children. For example, the Democratic Party of Japan proposes payment of a 16,000 yen monthly allowance per child until graduation from middle school, and a childbirth allowance of 200,000 yen with the funds raised through the abolition of the tax deduction for married people.

The Liberal Democratic Party does not give specific figures for its proposals. New Komeito proposes raising the annual income ceiling for recipients of child allowances to 10 million yen and extending coverage of the allowance to ninth graders with the amount doubled. The Japanese Communist Party proposes increasing the amount of child-care leave benefits and prohibiting night work for child-rearing workers. The Social Democratic Party proposes that the state shoulder all costs of childbirth.

Proposals contained in the white paper include helping to strengthen the financial base of nongovernmental organizations, supporting child-rearing parents in communities, cultivating private-sector businesses that provide baby-sitting and other supportive services, and providing vocational training to part-time workers so that they can find permanent jobs.

There is no panacea. But the most important measure is macro-economic — policy measures that contribute to the creation of a sufficient number of permanent jobs. Only when people have secure jobs and can expect income rises in the future will they be ready to have children, psychologically and financially.

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