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Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009
Parties wave flag for child-rearing
But policies intended to woo young voters don't address failings in caring for kids: critics
By MARIKO KATO
Child-rearing support is a focal issue in the campaign for the Aug. 30 election as the two main parties fight to woo parents, especially those who both work or have young children.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its main rival, the Democratic Party of Japan, are focusing on child-rearing and their strategies for curbing the low birthrate, which is a national concern because of the significance it holds for Japan's future economic well-being.
For family voters, too, child-rearing support is considered vital. According to a 2005 survey by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, the expense is the biggest reason why married couples do not have as many children as they want, with two-thirds expressing such a view.
Japan's total fertility rate — the number of children a woman would have through her life if she followed the birthrate of each generation of a given year — was 1.37 in 2008, lower than in Europe and the United States.
The DPJ promises to increase the child allowance and distribute it regardless of parental income, and plans to set up more child care centers at unused schools. The LDP is vowing to make infant education free by 2012, and also work to eliminate the long waiting lists for child care facilities by increasing their number.
Observers welcome the parties' campaign focus on child-rearing problems, but they claim both of their policies leave a lot to be desired. The DPJ's cash distributions will not fundamentally solve the existing problems of child-rearing, while the LDP's proposal for free infant education disadvantages those who fail to get into government-licensed educational facilities, they say.
"I approve of the fact that child-rearing in general has been the focal point of the DPJ's election campaign, as households with children have so far not received enough support," said Yuri Okina, research director at The Japan Research Institute Ltd.
"But they lack specifics on the most urgent problem, which is the dearth of child care facilities," she added.
The DPJ promises a monthly child allowance of ¥26,000 for every child until the end of junior high school regardless of parental income, starting with half the amount for the 2010 academic year.
At the moment, child allowances are only given to households with children of elementary school age or below and is weighted on parental income. Families receive up to ¥10,000 a month for children up to age 3, after which it is ¥5,000, except for the third child, who continues to receive ¥10,000.
But Okina said the ¥5.3 trillion budget the DPJ needs for the child allowance, as well as other proposed cash handouts, including bigger childbirth allowances, should be spread more broadly to address the shortage of child care.
"I think they are resorting to distributing cash, because it is complicated to fundamentally change the system and regulations on child care," she said.
The DPJ aims to utilize unused classrooms or closed schools to increase government-subsidized child care centers. It also plans to increase "hoiku mama" services, where qualified nurses work at home looking after several children.
But unlike the cash handout plans, the DPJ does not give specific targets or budgets for improving child care.
The shortage of child care facilities first gained political attention in 2001, when then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi started the "zero wait-listed children strategy." Despite the government's efforts to open more facilities, the problem worsened in recent years because of an increase in working mothers and population growth in areas where new condominium complexes have sprouted up.
More than 40,000 children were unable to register with government-approved facilities last October, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, since 1992 households where both parents work have largely outnumbered those where only the husband works, and in 2007 there were 10.1 million families with both parents employed, against 8.5 million with working husbands and housewives.
The LDP's main answer to the DPJ's child care strategies is to make education free by 2012 for 3- to 5-year-olds attending government-licensed child care centers or kindergarten. They also plan to keep the child allowance and deal with the shortage of child care facilities, although it does not mention specific targets.
Although the LDP's plan to make infant education free will lessen the financial burden on parents, it has failed to consider those unable to get into government-approved child care centers and have to pay more for alternative care, according to Okina.
Their strategy will increase the disparity between parents with higher and lower incomes, as children with parents working full-time get priority in registering with government-licensed child care facilities ahead of those with parents working part-time with lower salaries, she said.
Miki Hara, secretary general of the nonprofit organization Bi-no Bi-no, which supports child-rearing, also pointed out that the shortage of child care facilities is mainly a problem in cities, not rural areas, and the LDP should first reassess its current strategies to cater to the changing infant population in each region.
One of the DPJ's new strategies applauded by observers is the resurrection of financial support for single-parent households on welfare, which the current government scrapped in April and amounted to about ¥23,000 a month in Tokyo.
"I know that the allowance was stopped to encourage independence, but in reality there are single parents who are ill and cannot work," said Tetsuya Ando, head of the NPO Fathering Japan for single fathers.
Ando also said it was a breakthrough for both parties to mention support for single-father households in their platforms, and he hopes for more specific strategies in the future.
Both parties also vow to support older children, the DPJ by making state high school tuition free and the LDP by creating new support systems for those struggling to send children to higher education.
While agreeing that some of the new child-rearing policies of both parties lack specifics, Fathering Japan's Ando said their focus on the issue is the first step.
"This election has at last brought attention to problems in child-rearing, and I hope we can use it as an opportunity for more debates in the future," he said.