The government plans to reduce the spending for livelihood assistance known as seikatsu hogo (literally livelihood protection) in the fiscal 2013 budget and has started a review of the system. Because cases involving the illegal or questionable receipt of welfare benefits have cropped up and benefits are higher than the levels of legal minimum wages in some areas, the political bashing of livelihood assistance has become popular and pressure to slash benefits is likely to increase.

The Liberal Democratic Party calls for reducing benefits by 10 percent and providing certain services instead of cash. But political leaders and bureaucrats must remember that livelihood assistance is the last layer in the nation’s social safety net, which was devised based on Article 25 of the Constitution, which guarantees “the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living” and requires the government to promote social welfare, social security and public health.

The LDP’s manifesto for the next Lower House election stresses the importance of “self-help and self-reliance.” But this stance conveniently overlooks the fact that the current harsh economic climate — for which past LDP governments are largely responsible — is forcing many people to seek welfare assistance. The LDP’s policy could lead to widespread disdain for people who have no choice but to rely on welfare.

In June 2012, 2,115,477 people from 1,542,784 households were on welfare — both new records. The livelihood assistance spending is expected to reach ¥3.7 trillion in fiscal 2012. But that represents just 10 percent of total social welfare spending. In fiscal 2010, 25,355 people illegally received benefits worth ¥12.874 billion. But the percentage of illegal benefits in the total livelihood assistance payments was rather constant at 0.34 to 0.39 percent in the five years from 2006.

As part of its review of livelihood assistance, the health and welfare ministry plans to require relatives of welfare recipients to prove that they cannot support them. But many needy people may refrain from applying for livelihood assistance because they do not want their relatives to know that they will be on welfare. The ministry also plans to require healthy livelihood assistance recipients to make a concrete plan to find work in a short period of time. But this could force people to accept jobs with harsh working conditions.

A July 2012 survey by the ministry shows that the annual average household income in 2010 was ¥5.38 million, down ¥1.26 million from the peak in 1994. Clearly the increase in the number of welfare recipients is being fueled by worsening economic conditions, which the government has the duty to improve. In trying to reduce welfare benefits before improving the economy, the government is putting the cart before the horse. It must be remembered that the percentage of Japanese living on welfare was around 1.5 percent in 2010, much smaller than 5.7 percent in France and 9.3 percent in Britain the same year.

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