Legislation to make preschool education and day care services for children free of charge is now before the Diet. A key promise by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ahead of the general election in 2017, the legislation, if enacted, would make authorized nursery schools and kindergartens free in principle for all children age 3 to 5, and for children up to age 2 if they are from a low-income household, beginning in October. Subsidies would also be provided to users of unauthorized facilities to partially cover their costs. The legislation is billed as part of the effort to shift emphasis of social security programs from supporting the elderly through medical and nursing care services to reducing the burden of younger generations regarding child-rearing and education.

While these objectives are commendable, concerns remain that making day care services free will generate greater demand and exacerbate the shortage of such services for children, which the Abe administration has vowed to eliminate by fiscal 2020 — a target that has already been pushed back from 2017. As of last April, the number of children on waiting lists to enter authorized day care facilities nationwide declined to 19,895, falling below 20,000 for the first time in 10 years as more facilities were built over the past several years. Still, the figure testifies to the still serious shortage of such services as more mothers try to re-enter the labor market after giving birth.

According to a Kyodo News survey of major cities nationwide and Tokyo’s 23 wards, one out of every seven children up to age 2 who applied for admission to authorized nursery schools this spring was rejected. Competition to get admitted to such facilities remains particularly fierce in big urban areas. Of the 62 municipalities that responded to the survey, capacity at nursery schools fell short of demand in 55 of them. In such cities as Kawasaki, Sapporo, Saitama, Yokohama and Osaka, capacity fell short of demand by more than 1,000 children.

In a questionnaire, a majority of the municipalities predicted that the number of children on waiting lists to enter authorized nurseries would increase with the enactment of the legislation that makes the services free. Some municipalities expressed concern that the construction of more nursery schools to increase capacity might be delayed as resources shift to covering the costs of free day care services.

A key problem behind the shortage of nursery school capacity is said to be an acute shortage of child care workers. As of last September, the ratio of child care job openings to job seekers reached 2.8 — meaning that nearly three facilities compete to hire one worker. Reportedly behind the shortage of such workers is the occupation’s low pay, which is well below the all-industry average. It is believed that there are hundreds of thousands of people who have child care licenses but are currently not engaged in the occupation.

Many of the people involved in the child care industry, as well as mothers of preschool children, reportedly say the priority should be on increasing the number of child care workers by improving their employment conditions — thus reducing the gap in the availability of day care services for children — instead of spending resources on making preschool education and child care services free of charge.

It has also been pointed out in Diet deliberations that the free preschool education and child care services, whose expense would be covered by the additional revenue from the consumption tax hike in October, would only benefit households that are reasonably well off. Since the cost of using the service at authorized nursery schools is set in proportion to the income of the parents, most low-income households are already exempt from paying the fee. Opposition lawmakers have charged that much of the ¥770 billion annual cost of the program will be spent on covering the fees that better-off families have been paying — it is estimated that only up to 2 percent of the total expense of the program will be used to relieve the burden of low-income parents.

Another concern expressed over the program is that it covers part of the cost of using unauthorized day care facilities — where fatal accidents involving children in their care take place much more frequently than in authorized facilities. In principle, the subsidies are to be provided only for the use of day care facilities that meet the criteria set by the government, but they will be offered to those that do not fulfill the standards for a five-year grace period.

Instead of simply offering free preschool education and day care services, the government needs to take further steps to make sure that the services will be available to all families that need them, as well as to ensure the quality of the services provided.

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