Despite some improvements, child poverty remains a serious problem in this country. Children in such circumstances tend to face limited educational opportunities, which reduces their chances of ever landing decent jobs and raises the prospect they will remain poverty-stricken their entire lives. A recent amendment to the 2013 law designed to break this vicious cycle calls on municipal governments in addition to prefectures already tasked with the job to work out plans for dealing with the problems faced by children in low-income households.
Involving the authorities in cities, towns and villages in the effort is a significant step forward because officials at the local level will have a better grasp on the hardships besetting poor households and therefore are better positioned to address their problems. It is regrettable, however, that the call for setting numerical targets to lower the child poverty rate — which was mentioned in a draft compiled by a group of lawmakers across party lines that pushed for the amendment — was dropped in the amendment that cleared the Diet earlier this month. Setting specific targets for reducing child poverty means committing to concrete action to fight the problem. The government needs to step up its efforts to stop the chain reaction of poverty across generations.
The 2013 law was enacted for the purpose of breaking the chain of poverty from parents to their children by making sure their future opportunities won’t be hampered by their current living conditions. It calls on the national and local governments to take steps to support the education and livelihood of children in poor households as well as the employment of the parents.
The law was a response to the child poverty rate — the ratio of children younger than 18 living in households that earn less than half the national median income — shooting up to a record 16.3 percent in 2012 in the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s triennial survey released the following year. In the next survey in 2015, the relative child poverty rate fell by 2.4 points to 13.9 percent for the first decline in 12 years. The movement was attributed to improved labor market conditions that increased the income of households in the child-rearing age bracket.
However, the situation remained unchanged that even as of 2015, 1 out of 7 children in Japan was living in relative poverty. The child poverty rate in Japan tops the average of OECD members and is relatively high among all major industrialized countries. The situation is even worse among single-parent households — the child poverty rate among such families was 50.8 percent in 2015, though down from 54.6 percent in 2012.
The amended law calls for equalizing the education opportunities for children irrespective of their families’ financial conditions. But among households with children living on welfare — about 70 percent of which are led by single parents — the ratio of children advancing to universities and vocational training schools after finishing high school was 35.3 percent in 2017 — less than half the all-household average of 73 percent. A steep gap does exist in children’s chances of receiving a higher education according to their family’s financial circumstances.
Among single-parent households, many women raising children alone are believed to hold low-paying irregular jobs, including only part-time work. Further discussions need to be held on what can be done to improve the quality of these parents’ employment and their working conditions in order to improve their children’s future prospects. The government measure to exempt children from families on public welfare from having to pay college tuition and expanding scholarship programs beginning in fiscal 2020 is expected to help. There is concern, however, that the benefits of such steps will be limited because they cover low-income households only to a certain level.
The activities of private sector groups providing help to children of poor families, such as those offering them free meals and education support, have been expanding in recent years. However, a Cabinet Office survey shows that roughly half of these groups polled are run on a tight budget of less than ¥1 million a year, including manpower expenses. Many are said to face various difficulties in their operations, including insufficient funding and staffing as well as a shortage of volunteers who support such activities. What roles the national and local governments can play in these activities, such as providing funding for these groups, should be further explored.