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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Single moms fight for kids' futures

End of government aid makes it even harder to give offspring access to higher education


Staff writer

For single mothers, no government financial assistance means no higher education for their children — and probably no future.

News photo
Time for a stroll: A mother and child take a walk in a park in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on Tuesday. SATOKO KAWSAKI PHOTO

With the government in April terminating financial assistance to single parents that in Tokyo amounted to about ¥23,000 a month, many have no means to cover the expenses to even send their children to high school.

One single mother, who didn't want her name revealed, took refuge at a shelter in 2002 after suffering domestic violence and is now raising three teenagers.

"I'm extremely worried," she said. "I can't save any money and I have no idea how to give my children an education."

She is one of many single parents receiving public aid who may not be able to send their children on to higher education.

The halt in financial assistance for single-parent households on welfare has led to an outcry, especially from single mothers living in poverty.

At a rally of single mothers and their supporters in Tokyo in June, the main concern of many participants was their children's education.

"Half of single mothers only graduated from junior high school," which makes it difficult for them to get a high-paying job and make enough money for their children to get higher education, said Naomi Yuzawa, a professor of family policy at Rikkyo University Community and Human Services College.

The government does not compile official statistics on the poverty rate of single-parent households.

However, according to Aya Abe, a researcher at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, the relative poverty rate of single-mother households in 2004 was 66 percent, far higher than the 11 percent of households with both parents.

The relative poverty rate is defined as the percentage of households with income of less than half the country's median value of disposable income.

Statistics by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in the mid-2000s also show the poverty rate here for children in single-parent households is high. Japan's rate of 59 percent was the third highest among OECD countries, behind only the 64 percent in the United States and 60 percent in Canada.

"This is a serious issue," Yuzawa said. "The government hasn't measured the poverty rate, including the rate of child poverty, and they don't even have a goal to reduce it."

The amount of single-parent aid, which was only provided to those living on welfare, was gradually reduced starting in 2005 before being terminated in April.

The welfare ministry said the government made the decision because the average combined income of welfare assistance and single-parent aid had exceeded the average expenses of single-parent households, most of which do not live on welfare.

However, many single parents living on welfare do not have any savings and face considerable hardships.

"My health condition isn't stable, but if I earn ¥10,000 or ¥20,000 more (per month) by doing a part-time job, I can pay school fees," the single mother who suffered domestic violence said.

Because she suffers from depression, her doctor has advised her not to work. But she has started working anyway, because she said she needs to make a living no matter what, even by cutting down on food expenses.

Public high school tuition fees have been covered by public assistance since 2005, but parents still have to pay for school trips, extracurricular activities and cover the difference if their children go to a private high school.

"I told my children they cannot go to high school unless they're accepted by a public school," the single mother said.

Another single mother in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, who did not want her name used earns barely ¥1 million a year, despite working five days a week. "I can hardly make ends meet every month. I can't even eat rice every day," she said, adding she can't save money or pay for cram school for her son.

In the Diet, the opposition parties have submitted a bill to revive financial assistance for single-parent households, arguing that cutting off the aid must at least be deliberated.

Although the bill cleared the Upper House last Friday, its chances of enactment are slim because of the dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc in the Lower House.

Meanwhile, government officials argue that newly introduced government assistance will make up for some of the lost allowance for single-parent households.

However, such aid is far from sufficient, and only working single parents qualify for it. In 2007, the government started to encourage single parents to work more by providing ¥10,000 to those with a monthly income of more than ¥30,000 a month and ¥5,000 for those who earn less.

In addition, 40,000 single-parent households do not qualify for the new assistance because the parent is unable to work because they are sick or have to take care of children or the elderly.

Insufficient public aid severely limits the educational opportunities of children of single parents.

Yuka, a third-year junior high school student in Kawasaki, desperately wants to help her mother financially. "I cannot tell (my friends) our family is living on welfare," she said, declining to reveal her last name.

"I'm worried about money, so I'm still wondering which high school I can go to. I sometimes think our life is hard because of me."

This year, the government started providing a monthly attendance allowance of ¥2,560 to elementary school students, ¥4,330 to junior high school students and ¥5,010 for high school students.

But this is insufficient, according to Toshihiko Kudo, director of Ashinaga, an organization that financially supports the education of children who have lost either one or both parents.

"The tuition fee (of private high schools and universities) is extremely high in Japan compared with overseas," he said.

According to 2008 OECD statistics, Japan only spends 0.5 percent of its gross domestic product on higher education, compared with 1.7 percent in Finland, 1.5 percent in Sweden and 1.0 percent in the U.S.

"We cannot call Japan a nation of education. People in poverty lose the chance of education and because of that they cannot get a stable job," he said. "Children in poverty will stay poor forever."



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