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Japan lawmakers propose 'Child Poverty Agency' to ease COVID blow

Majority of single-parent households report economic hardship

Japan records one of the highest child poverty rates for single-parent families among advanced nations.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The coronavirus has exacerbated child poverty in Japan, hitting single-parent households particularly hard, prompting calls for immediate action ranging from cash payouts to the creation of a new agency.

About 60% of single-parent households reported strained living circumstances in a November survey by the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, while those unable to buy enough food during the most recent month grew to 35.6%.

"We need to disburse cash relief to single-parent households and other needy families as soon as possible, within this fiscal year," said Yuka Miyazawa of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party.

In Japan, 13.5% of children younger than 18 already lived in households with income less than half the country's median during 2018. The ratio stood at 48.1% for children in single-parent homes, believed to be the highest level among nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

"COVID has put into sharp relief problems that have been ignored, including poverty among single mothers," said Kumie Inoue, director of the social policy division at Rengo, Japan's top labor organization.

Japan's coronavirus state of emergency is expected to push gross domestic product into a decline in the January-March quarter. Members of the ruling and opposition parties want a stronger response from the government.

A group within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party promoting women's social participation is calling for another round of cash payments targeting hard-up households. The Constitutional Democrats and the Japanese Communist Party have compiled a motion to include stimulus payments to low-income households with children in next fiscal year's budget.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga so far remains noncommittal, saying that he supports expanding safety nets, such as emergency loans, instead.

Poverty harms children beyond the economic front. Families with heightened insecurity about their quality of life tend to reduce contact with those outside the household. Police referred a record number of children last year to welfare centers due to suspicion of abuse.

Upper house legislator Taro Yamada is leading efforts to create an agency that will comprehensively manage policies assisting households with children. The aim is to eliminate bureaucratic red tape preventing coordination among different ministries. Yamada urged Suga to set up an agency when he met with the prime minister on Jan. 24.

"Eliminating organizational silos is your specialty," Yamada told Suga.

When it comes to abuse, for example, child welfare centers fall under the health ministry. But domestic violence is handled by the Cabinet Office, while schooling is overseen by the education ministry. This overlap of authority hampers any centralized approach.

The LDP group last month solicited input from the public, amassing over 17,000 responses. It will issue recommendations later this month based on that correspondence.

The group will urge the LDP to include the child poverty agency in the party platform for the next general election. It also will push Suga's government to incorporate the agency into the Basic Policy on Economic and Fiscal Management and Reform, to be finalized this summer. Lawmakers are hopeful that the child poverty agency will headline Suga's policy agenda along with the proposed national digital agency.

Child poverty was a problem before the pandemic. Aya Abe, professor of poverty studies at Tokyo Metropolitan University, urged strengthening existing mechanisms for public welfare, social insurance and housing security benefits regardless of the reason or the type of household.

"There's something odd about granting [expanded] assistance due to diminished incomes from the COVID impact," Abe said.

She believes the government should instead utilize existing safety nets, such as public assistance and housing subsidies.

"First, a cabinet-level committee among relevant agencies should take up policies [concerning child poverty] and raise the order of priority," Abe said.

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