By Tokyo Metropolitan University Prof. Aya Abe
Japan has a poverty rate of 15.6%, which is actually quite high. Poverty among children, who will be the backbone of Japan’s future, in particular, is very serious and measures need to be taken promptly to deal with this problem.
Few people would argue with the above. Most political parties in the recent House of Representatives election also campaigned for the expansion of policies to support children, such as free preschool education. There probably wouldn’t be any serious objections to this either.
The problem goes beyond that to the question of who is going to pay for these policies.
At the risk of oversimplification, I would say the middle income bracket will have to bear a heavier financial burden in order to give more assistance to the poor as a measure to eliminate child poverty.
The government is already saddled with debts. Since these debts are to be paid by future workers, or today’s children, increasing the debts further will not be in the interest of the future generations. Debts should rather be reduced. Therefore, today’s adults will have to pay for poverty reduction measures. Yet, the question of “who is going to pay for it” has not been discussed in a straightforward manner.
The problem is a majority of the Japanese people have a “middle class mentality.” Most of them think they are the ones who need support.
The other day, I had a discussion with a doctor who is an activist involved with child poverty issues. Even he said: “I won’t be able to get back all money I’ve paid into my pension so far. Isn’t that terrible?”
Yet, that money shouldn’t really be given back to him. Tax money is used to finance the pension systems, and this is putting a strain on funding for welfare and education. The rich alone will not be able to repay the government debts and expand social security benefits. All of the Japanese people, including the middle income earners, will have to pay more taxes and social insurance contributions.
According to the latest statistics of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, the average annual income of Japanese households is 4.28 million yen. Households earning more belong to the “upper class,” while those with incomes of over 8 million yen belong to the top 20%. Since more than 80% of households with children earn more than 4 million yen, most people of the childrearing generation are actually better off than the middle income bracket. These households will also have to contribute their share in taxes and social insurance premiums.
The “middle class,” the “common folks,” and the “childrearing generation” are often cited as people who need to be “protected.” However, people in the upper income brackets should at least have a stronger awareness that they are the ones who will have to pay.
I think this was not made clear in the Lower House election when the politicians talked about “all children” and “free education.” In reality, many households raising children, senior citizens, young people, and people approaching old age feel that their lives are not easy. What I would like to hear is for them to say: “Even so, we should all support this policy because it’s important.”