The welfare ministry’s main task with regards to public assistance is to make sure individuals who receive government funds due to financial difficulties are not taking undue advantage of the system. Consequently, the rationale behind public welfare in Japan isn’t the same as it is in, say, Europe, where providing public assistance to the needy is considered a core mission of government. In Japan, those who require help must be proactive, even agressive, in securing that help.
It’s therefore no surprise that since 2013 the amount of public assistance that’s been made available by the welfare ministry has been steadily decreasing, according to a recent report by NHK. The biggest drop, 10 percent, was from 2013 to 2015. The government has explained that this decrease was due to a concurrent drop in the consumer price index. As a result, throughout Japan 29 lawsuits were brought against the government by welfare recipients who demanded they be compensated for the loss of benefits, and Oct. 19 the Yokohama District Court found in favor of some of these plaintiffs, saying that the government’s decision to cut payments was arbitrary. No experts were consulted before the cuts were made and the CPI justification wasn’t convincing since the index is based on a wide variety of products and services, including big ticket items such as smart TVs and computers, which people on welfare don’t buy, so using the CPI as a referent was not “reasonable” since it didn’t properly gauge the cost of living for people already receiving public assistance. Food and necessary goods did not decrease in price appreciably.
NHK says that this was the fourth case so far that was decided in favor of the plaintiffs. In another case that is currently being tried in Saitama, the plaintiffs’ attorneys are arguing that cutting welfare benefits is a violation of Article 25 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to a minimum standard of living. If the suit is successful, it would make for a very strong precedent.
Of course, in the past few years, inflation has erased any CPI decrease, but people who receive government assistance have not necessarily seen an increase in their benefits. In many cases, they have continued to lose economic traction in other ways.
Activist Karin Amamiya recently wrote about the problem in her column in Magazine 9, where she elaborated on how inflation is hitting poor people disproportionately. She is now afraid that the sudden and substantial increase in the defense budget, which many in the government want to pay for with increased taxes, will make it even more difficult for low income people to survive. One of her regular activities is helping an NGO that gives away food in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government offices every Saturday. She says that on the last day of November, 644 people stood in line to receive food, the largest number she has ever seen. Due to inflation, the average Tokyo household’s living expenses this year increased by ¥96,000 over 2021, and is expected to increase by at least another ¥40,000 next year. These increases also affect people on government assistance, who still have to pay market prices for the things they need.
In the article, Amamiya reports on a press conference on welfare standards given by a special government panel that is studying the matter. This panel reviews welfare standards every five years to determine if they should be changed, and the next report is in 2023. The panel’s main concern right now is a decrease in living standards caused by welfare cuts for people over 75, which could be exacerbated by the expected tax increase. As it stands, the panel is using data from the past and therefore is not factoring in any possible future tax increases.
Nevertheless, the living situation of people on assistance is becoming more and more precarious owing to the fallout from the COVID epidemic. Many people lost jobs and couldn’t get by on their savings. By rights, they could have applied for government assistance, especially if they had dependents, but the hurdles put in place by the welfare ministry just to apply for assistance are intimidating, so Amamiya and other activists offer assistance by accompanying those who seek assistance when they meet with welfare clerks. These activists know the system and can usually secure benefits for those in need.
One area that is particularly difficult right now is housing. When people lost work due to COVID many also lost the places they lived, either because it was provided by their employer or fell behind on rent for private residences and were evicted. Amamiya helped some of these people apply for subsidized housing. In Tokyo, people who qualify for government assistance and need a place to live are elegible for temporary free rooms in hotels until they can secure permanent housing, but in October the welfare ministry, which pays partially for these rooms, said the number was limited due to an increase in room charges as the volume of tourists returned to normal, so some welfare recipients who had rooms were kicked out and sent to “free or low-fee accommodations,” which are also in short supply.
Another problem is that some households on welfare had their water shut off due to delinquency in paying their bills. In 2021, 105,000 households had their water shut off, and this year 90,000 lost water usage between April and September. Since water is a lifeline, there are usually safeguards in place to make sure that service isn’t cut off for any reason, and in the case of welfare recipients, water meter readers are charged with reporting payment scofflaws to local welfare offices. It’s part of their job. Then the welfare office will step in and pay the bill. However, Tokyo has automated its billing procedure, which means it no longer employs meter readers. The water utility just sends a bill to the address of the user without any followup when the payment isn’t made on time, and after 3 or 4 months of non-payment, the water is shut off.
Amamiya points out that in Germany, if a tenant is consistenly late in paying rent, it is the landlord’s obligation to contact the local government, which then sends an official to check with the tenant and decide if the person should receive assistance. In Japan, persons who neglect to pay their rent or utility bills are simply evicted or have their services cut off. That’s why Amamiya and her colleagues accompany those in need to the welfare office. The government isn’t going to do anything proactively because, in principle, it thinks people on government assistance are inherently untrustworthy. It’s their policy.