According to statistics released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, one out of every seven Japanese children under 17 lives in poverty.
Poverty has long been known to adversely effect children’s health and education, but there also are concerns now that growing up in poverty tends to lock children into a cycle of poverty that leaves them economically disadvantaged all their lives.
A 20-year-old woman, who works for a private organization in the Kanto region, recalled that until she entered a foster home in her later years of primary school, she had seldom attended class.
Zurui’s note: “The poverty line is considered one half the median income, or around ¥2.3 million per year. The current poverty rate for Japan is 15.3 percent. That means more than 19 million live below the poverty line. Forty percent of the more-than-1.2-million single mothers make less than ¥1.5 million per year.
This was because her mother was sickly, leaving their home untidy, with broken glass littering the floor. The woman recalls having to shoplift bread and snacks to feed her two younger brothers. Her unemployed father often left home after getting drunk.
“I thought I was different from other children and I tried to believe that life wasn’t real,” she said.
The plight of children living in poverty can usually be attributed to their parents’ unemployment or low incomes.An official of a municipal government who has worked for 30 years at a welfare office said with the number of parents having unsteady jobs increasing, the number of children affected by their parents’ unstable lives has risen accordingly.
Many poor children do not live in a clean environment, do not acquire the habit of going to bed early and getting up early, and do not have any relatives they can turn to, according to the welfare official.
“Such children do not begin their lives from the same starting line as ordinary children do,” he said.
Because of the fact that the country suffered devastating postwar poverty and later achieved rapid growth and became an economic powerhouse, there are no clear standards to define poverty in Japan. The government also does not keep statistics concerning poverty.
However, according to a 2000 OECD survey, the child poverty rate in Japan stood at 14.3 percent, 2.2 percentage points higher than the average among developed nations and an increase of 2.3 percentage points from 10 years earlier.
While family environment is not the sole factor that determines a child’s future, its importance is confirmed by numerous studies.
One area of the child’s life affected is education. The Osaka city government compiled a report in March 2004 on the state of single-parent families in the city.
Asked what level of education they aspired to for their children, the report stated that more than half of parents in households earning 6 million yen or more a year cited university, while less than a quarter of parents making less than 2 million yen had similar hopes.
Takeshi Tokuzawa, an official at Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward office who started offering free tutoring to children of families on welfare 20 years ago, said, “Many children would often give up on going to university because of family problems or because their parents didn’t go to university.”
Poverty linked to abuse
There also are surveys pointing to a relationship between poverty and child abuse.
According to statistics compiled in June last year by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, of the 51 deaths resulting from child abuse reported in 2005, about 40 percent of the children were from households poor enough to be exempted from paying municipal taxes.
Statistics also indicate a connection between poverty and crime.
Hokkaido University Associate Prof. Mika Iwata, an expert on education and welfare, studied families whose children have been sent to reformatories using the results of surveys conducted by the government.
She found that about 20 percent to 30 percent of the families were poor.
There also are concerns about the effect of poverty on children’s health.
At the end of February last year, the Yokohama social security promotion council obtained data from the Yokohama city government indicating about 3,700 children whose parents had failed to pay national health insurance premiums might have shied away from taking their children to hospital because of their inability to pay medical bills.
“Some children don’t receive proper medical treatment because their parents are poor,” a council member said.
Other disturbing data also has emerged.
In April 2006, Ryu Michinaka, a board director of the Health and Welfare Bureau of the Sakai city government in Osaka Prefecture, found that 25 percent of the heads of 390 randomly selected families on welfare benefits also were brought up in families receiving welfare benefits.
In the case of single-mother families, the figure was as high as 40 percent.
“The statistics indicate that poverty has become a fixed loop. We have to first break the poverty cycle. Measures to help such parents and children stand on their own are also needed,” Michinaka said.
What should the government do?
Michiko Miyamoto, a sociology professor at the Open University of Japan, said the government should first grasp the situation of children living in poverty.
To this end, organizations related to medical services, welfare, education and employment that have information on such children should set up an information-sharing system, the professor said.
In addition to raising minimum wages to increase working parents’ incomes, assistance to single-parent families, which are more likely to have difficulties making ends meet, should be increased, according to Miyamoto.
“Furthermore, measures to cut tuition fees and improve the arrangements for scholarships for such children should also be increased,” she said.
Aya Abe, senior researcher in the Department of International Research and Cooperation of the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, said in Japan, grants in cash and tax deductions for low-income people are insufficient.
“On the other hand, because the burden of taxes and social insurance premiums are heavy for poor families, welfare benefits and child allowances can’t lift recipients out of poverty,” she said.
To solve the problem, financial resources should be secured, for instance by trimming spousal tax deductions, and reviewing the tax system with an eye to the situation of low-income earners, she said.
Abe also suggested that child allowances be increased and that income security should be improved.
In Europe, child poverty has been a high-profile issue for more than a decade, and governments have taken measures to tackle the problem.
This is because if child poverty is left unattended as a family problem, poor children will be isolated from society in the future and the problem would result in increased social costs.
In 1999, then Prime Minister Tony Blair declared his intention to wipe out child poverty in Britain by 2020.
According to EU statistics, the number of children living in poverty in Britain was reduced from about 3.4 million at that time to about 2.8 million now by giving tax deductions to low-income parents and granting educational allowances to low-income families with children aged between 16 and 18.
In Germany, child allowances are given to families with children up to 27 years old. The government also provides housing allowances for low-income earners.
In Sweden, the government has individual self-help programs for people up to 20 years old, offering education and job-training programs.
Financial resources are needed for such allowances. Government spending on benefits related to childbirth, child rearing and child allowances in 2003 as a percentage of gross domestic product was 3.54 percent in Sweden, 2.93 percent in Britain, 2.01 percent in Germany and a meager 0.75 percent in Japan.