--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 3
EDITORIAL: Deflation a baffling excuse to reduce welfare benefits

The government’s decision to cut welfare benefits has raised concerns about an endless decline in “the minimum standards of living,” which is guaranteed by the Constitution.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to reduce the budget for the livelihood protection program in the new fiscal year. Financial support to help the needy cover their living expenses will be effectively slashed by 6.5 percent over the next three years.

The benefits paid out under the program, which started in 1950, were trimmed only twice in the past, by 0.9 percent in fiscal 2003 and by 0.2 percent in fiscal 2004. The planned reduction will be exceptionally large.

The government says that 58 billion yen (about $625 million) of the 67-billion-yen cutback will represent an adjustment for the general decline in prices from 2008 through 2011.

That’s a baffling claim.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has reviewed the levels of the benefits provided under the program to ascertain that they are neither too high nor too low compared with the levels of spending by general low-income households.

A panel of experts for the ministry actually carried out the review in 13 meetings that were open to the public. The panel concluded that the benefits to help cover living expenses should be relatively high for families of a husband and wife with children and relatively low for households consisting of a single elderly person.

An adjustment of the benefits in line with the panel’s conclusion would reduce the budget for the program by only 9 billion yen. But the government has decided to prune the budget by an amount that is more than six times larger under the pretext of deflation.

It is indeed necessary to ensure that the levels of livelihood protection benefits are appropriate. Unlike the pension program, however, the livelihood protection program does not have a mechanism to reflect changes in prices on the amounts of benefits. The cutback for deflation adjustment has only been hastily introduced in line with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s desire to cut the benefits by 10 percent in principle.

The government should ask experts to re-examine the drastic decline in benefits from the viewpoint of the actual cost of living. The government would be acting in a rash and careless manner if it starts cutting the livelihood protection benefits based solely on its political decision without seeking opinions from experts. On the other hand, the administration is set to spend as much as 190 billion yen to reduce medical fees actually paid by elderly patients at hospitals.

Would the Abe administration raise the amounts of benefits if its 2-percent inflation target is achieved?

The government’s move has brought to the fore the disturbing fact that there is no clear limit to cuts in livelihood protection benefits.

When the economy kept growing and the levels of welfare benefits were constantly raised, there was probably no strong need for serious and exhaustive debate on the exact meaning of “the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living,” which is guaranteed by the Article 25 of the Constitution.

The only definition of the “minimum standards of living” that has ever been formulated in the history of the livelihood protection program is “having enough nutrition to be able to get out of bed in a daily life,” according to one study. This definition was established shortly after the end of World War II when the scars of the war still remained unhealed.

But times have changed.

What are the “minimum standards of living” that should be guaranteed to all members of society?

This question is assuming greater importance for the security of life in today’s Japan, where the population is aging and the employment situation is becoming increasingly unstable.

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