子どもの貧困 学び支え、連鎖断ち切ろう

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 5
EDITORIAL: Child poverty in Japan must be tackled with utmost urgency
子どもの貧困 学び支え、連鎖断ち切ろう
A report released in April by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) painted a grim picture of child poverty in Japan.
It said children of the poorest households in Japan are much more disadvantaged than their peers in many other industrialized countries.

The study focused on the disparities between children at the bottom and those in the middle in the wealthiest nations. The inequality gap in Japan was the eighth largest among the 41 countries surveyed.

Japan also ranked far below the average among industrial nations in terms of the relative poverty rate, or the ratio of people living on less than half the median income. One in six Japanese children was poor by this relative measure, which reflects how far the poorest children have plummeted behind those in the middle tier.

The UNICEF study highlighted the fact that child poverty in Japan is spreading and deepening.

The government needs to tackle this problem with policy support measures targeted at needy households.

Obviously, effective welfare and other relief for poor families, such as allowances to help cover their daily expenses and steps to help parents get jobs, are vital for tackling this growing problem.

Even more important, however, is support focused on children. The principal challenge facing policymakers and others concerned is how to break the “chain of poverty,” in which children in poor families remain stuck in poverty even after they grow up, causing the cycle to fester for generations.

Education is the key.


A community center in the city of Saitama is on the frontline of the war against poverty among children.
Twice each week, junior high school students in school uniforms or gym clothes converge on the center after 6 p.m.

The facility is a venue for a free “learning support class” program, under which university student volunteers help children of financially strained families with their studies.

An 18-year-old student who has been working as a volunteer at the center since April once received learning support under the program.

“Whenever I came here, I could find someone who was ready to listen to me,” she says. “This place was a source of emotional and spiritual support for me.”

The student has been living only with her mother. When she was in her second year at junior high school, her mother, the family’s bread earner, fell ill and had to rely on financial assistance under the government’s livelihood protection program.

“I wondered if I should start working instead of going on to a university. But after a university student volunteer (at the center) clued me in about college life and other things, I grew more ambitious.”

Now, she is learning about welfare, courtesy of a university scholarship.

The program is operated by a nonprofit organization called “Saitama Youth Support Net” on behalf of the municipal government.
Yasushi Aoto, who heads the organization, stresses the importance of learning support to help poor students. “The problem of poverty can never be solved unless children acquire the ability to carve out a better future for themselves,” Aoto says. “Learning support should be at the core of efforts against poverty.”

The welfare ministry placed much importance on learning support as a key element of policy efforts introduced in April last year to tackle the problem of child poverty under a program to help the needy become financially independent. The ministry has urged local governments to take steps to expand learning support for children of needy families.

Since this is a program based on voluntary policy initiatives, however, as many as 45 percent of the local governments have no plan to implement specific measures, according to a survey by Aoto’s group.


One potentially effective way to accelerate policy efforts to reduce poverty is to make the problem more clearly “visible” to the public.

Earlier this year, Okinawa became the first prefecture to announce its own estimate of its child poverty rate. According to a survey commissioned by the prefectural government, 29.9 percent of children in the prefecture live under the poverty line, a figure that is 80 percent higher than the national average.

“It's impossible to come up with the appropriate measures unless we grasp the severity of the situation concerning poverty among children in Okinawa,” said Kenta Kishaba, who heads the section for child policy.

Prefectural authorities had to persuade many initially unwilling municipal governments to cooperate in the endeavor.

The survey’s findings showed that the existing systems to support needy families are not working.
Nearly half of families living under the poverty line didn’t use the local government’s program to subsidize the costs of learning materials used at schools, for instance. Nearly 20 percent of these families didn’t even know about the program.

The prefectural government has drawn up a six-year plan to address the problem by setting 34 numerical targets, including reducing the number of needy families that don’t know the subsidy program to zero and ensuring that all municipalities operate learning support classes. It established a 3 billion yen ($28.3 million) fund to achieve those targets.

Ai Tatsuno, who heads the nonprofit corporation that carried out the survey on behalf of the prefectural government, said the local governments took steps to solve the problem after facing the reality (grasped by the survey).
“Understanding the reality is vital also for evaluating the effectiveness of policy measures,” Tatsuno added.

Osaka City also plans to conduct a similar survey of elementary and junior high school students within this fiscal year. Grasping the situation in each area will provide strong impetus to policy efforts to tackle the problem. Other local governments should follow suit, and swiftly.


The central government’s policy guidelines for addressing the problem were endorsed by the Cabinet after the law to deal with child poverty came into effect in 2014. They call for effective measures to create the right surroundings and ensure equal opportunities for education so that the future of children will not be affected by the environment in which they grow up.

But these words should be matched with specific policy actions. The government needs to enhance its policy responses, mainly in the areas of social security and education.

In particular, Japan’s public spending on education in terms of its ratio to the size of its economy is among the lowest in the developed world. The government should drastically increase its education budget.

A lawmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party recently made disheartening remarks about the proposal to expand scholarships.
“The government should be firmly committed to compulsory education, but students at high schools and universities should work on their own,” the lawmaker said.

This comment echoes a widespread view. But it is high time Japanese society stopped being wedded to this kind of simplistic and outdated thinking based on the principle of personal responsibility.

Children will become the backbone of society. Supporting their healthy development is an investment in the future.

Society at all levels must reach out to support its children. There needs to be broad social consensus on the merits of this principle and what it will entail.

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