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A new scheme to support the needy was put in place this month. It will supplement the welfare program under the Livelihood Protection Law, which has functioned as a final safety net. The new system is meant to help people who don’t qualify for the traditional livelihood assistance program but still need public support. The aid, to be provided by local governments, will include job training as well as housing assistance.

Behind the introduction of the system are the growing ranks of Japanese who live in poverty due to unstable employment, low wages and other factors. To make the system function well, local authorities need a sufficient number of staff who are capable of helping people facing diverse problems.

The new system should not be used as an excuse to deny livelihood assistance to those who need it. Since 2013, the Abe administration has sought to reduce the number of people on welfare and slash benefits provided under the livelihood assistance program. In fact, the legislation to introduce the new system was packaged with a revision of the Livelihood Protection Law, which took effect in July, to tighten the procedures for receiving livelihood assistance. Some fear this measure could discourage needy people from applying for welfare.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, some 2.17 million people were receiving livelihood assistance as of January, with benefits totaling ¥3.8 trillion annually. But the number of people who qualify for welfare but don’t receive it is probably several times that figure, going by the number of people who visit welfare offices — 400,000 in fiscal 2011 alone — and the number of people who earn less than ¥2 million a year but do not seek help or advice from welfare offices.

The poorest segment of the population has been expanding. Japan’s relative poverty rate — the percentage of the population earning less than half the median household income — is 16.1 percent, fourth highest among the 34 OECD member countries. It’s estimated that about one in every three single women lives in poverty — many of them employed in irregular jobs, earning only about 60 percent of their male counterparts. Irregular workers account for nearly 40 percent of Japan’s labor force, including a growing number of youths.

Under the new system, municipal governments in areas where welfare offices are located are charged with providing support for needy people. In other areas, prefectural governments provide the assistance. There are 856 welfare offices nationwide and they will serve as core organizations to implement the new system. The municipal and prefectural governments have established consultation sections to devise support plans that fit applicants’ needs. If they have lost their jobs and their residences, the system will provide housing benefits up to the maximum level offered under the livelihood assistance scheme for a period of three to nine months.

Optional support offered by local governments under the system includes temporary housing, food and clothing for those rendered homeless; programs lasting six to 12 months to help people who are having trouble finding jobs due to psychological problems prepare for employment; advice on family finances to help people live within their limited income; and study assistance for children of low-income families. They can also create opportunities for “intermediate employment” by helping people who cannot work full-time for jobs get jobs suited to their needs. The local governments may have businesses and nonprofit organizations operate such workplaces.

Since local governments must offer a variety of support, they need staff who can provide advice on a wide range of matters such as vocational training, family finances, social security and children’s education. They also need to work effectively with businesses, lawyers and nonprofit organizations to get relevant expertise. Funding by the national government covers a half to three-fourths of the costs of the new services and the rest will be shouldered by local governments. A sufficient budget must be set aside to ensure the new safety net fulfills its intended function.

In addition, local governments should also not wait for people to come asking for help. They should widely disseminate information about the program and make efforts to find people who need its support. They also should make sure the intermediate employment scheme is not used by businesses as a source of cheap labor.

Above all else, the national government must figure out why the number of people living in poverty is growing and enact economic and social policies to reverse this disturbing trend.

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