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Friday, June 22, 2012

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Standing up for the indigent: A nationwide network of lawyers and other experts active in welfare issues meets in Tokyo on May 30. KYODO

Poor face welfare cuts amid scandals, misperceptions

Staff writer

For a Tokyo woman in her late 40s who was on welfare until last year, ¥3,000 was enough to survive for a week.

"It's common sense for people on welfare," said the woman, who wanted her name withheld. "I had to think for months whether I should buy a T-shirt. I couldn't even take a bus because the fare was too expensive for me."

Life on welfare is tough, said the woman, who has been a victim of domestic violence. But the government is in dire fiscal straits and considering more cutbacks to welfare after finding the perfect justification — welfare fraud, if not in legal fact then at least in the public's politically fueled perception.

The problem recently entered the spotlight when it was reported that comedian Junichi Komoto, a member of the popular comedy duo Jicho Kacho, "let" his mother collect welfare benefits even after his career took off.

"I want to discuss how we're going to reduce" the benefits based on the Liberal Democratic Party's plan to cut financial assistance by 10 percent, Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoko Komiyama said during a meeting of the social security and tax reform committee on May 25.

The welfare ministry has submitted a plan to lessen the benefits, urge relatives with means to financially support kin, and severely punish those who are unqualified to collect benefits.

Confronted by the planned cutbacks and an outcry from the poor, lawyers and nonprofit organizations recently held a press conference in Tokyo to pressure the government to first address the contradiction posed by the millions of impoverished people who are still not on welfare, before cutting back on benefits for them.

"At most, 30 percent of the people eligible for welfare are receiving financial assistance. There are still 4 to 5 million people who can receive welfare but do not. That's the reality of poverty in Japan," said Tsuyoshi Inaba, head of Independent Life Support Center Moyai, an aid group for homeless people.

Japan's poverty rate has been rising and hit 16 percent in 2009 — the highest since the government started compiling comparable data in 1985. This is partly because the number of people over 65 years old is climbing, according to the welfare ministry.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development defines poor households as those with less than half the yearly median disposable income. In Japan, that number was ¥1.12 million.

According to the ministry's survey, the number of welfare recipients set a record high in February at about 2.1 million.

The worldwide financial crisis that started in 2008 is probably the main reason for the increase, a ministry official said. Now 1 in 3 workers is either a contract, temporary or part-time employee who receives less pay and benefits than full-timers.

Although welfare recipients have increased, the application process hasn't become easier. Inaba said it is common for town offices to discourage applicants by telling them they should be able to find work or get financial help from relatives.

Rejections can lead to serious consequences.

In Kitakyushu between 2005 and 2007, three people who apparently sought but were denied welfare benefits starved to death.

NPOs fear the hurdles to receiving or even applying for welfare will get higher if the government requires applicants to first seek financial support from relatives.

"There are people who have experienced domestic violence or abuse in childhood, so many of them want to avoid going to the town office to send their families inquiries about financial support," Inaba said.

Meanwhile, experts criticized TV shows and tabloids for creating misunderstandings about livelihood assistance after the Komoto expose by running reports implying that many on welfare were receiving benefits illegally. In fact, only 1.8 percent of the households on welfare were found in violation in 2010, the welfare ministry said.

But because the amount being lost is significant — about ¥13 billion out of ¥3 trillion — the ministry in December will begin checking for all of the bank accounts kept by welfare recipients so they cannot cheat by spreading their savings among several accounts.

Hiroaki Mizushima, professor of media and communication studies at Hosei University and a former broadcast journalist at Nippon Television Network, said he was disappointed that a TV show portrayed welfare recipients as slackers who blow their money on pachinko.

"Journalists should do more research and interview people on welfare," said Mizushima, who covered the poverty issue extensively.

Inaba from the Moyai aid group said recent media coverage portrays welfare recipients as robbers of taxpayer money.

"Every time they go shopping, they have to worry they might be discriminated against because they are on welfare. Imagine how hard this is," he said.

Inaba is also concerned that suicide rates may go up if the government curbs welfare benefits and makes applying more difficult.

A man in his 40s living on welfare who declined to be identified agrees with Inaba. "Just a month ago, a friend of mine who was on welfare killed himself. I'm afraid such cases will increase," he said, adding he is being pressured to feel guilty about receiving benefits.

The suicide rate among welfare recipients was double the average in 2010, according to the welfare ministry, which plans to compile an interim report on the welfare system by month's end and a final report in autumn.

The Tokyo woman on welfare said she is worried that fewer people, particularly women, will apply for welfare if the government raises the bar.

"Women in poverty are sometimes forced to do jobs they are unwilling to do," she said.

"There are social workers who tell them to sell their bodies to make a living. I hope minister Komiyama, as a female, will give maximum consideration to women."

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