Welfare system not faring well

Ten years ago, in her book “Nickel and Dimed,” Barbara Ehrenreich chronicled her own experience as a subsistence-level American wage-earner during a period of relative economic vigor. She found a whole class of workers who lived — and would always live — from paycheck to paycheck. In the afterword to the recently published tenth-anniversary edition of the book, Ehrenreich says that in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, these people now have to compete for minimum-wage jobs.

In spirit, Japan’s public welfare system is closer to America’s than it is to Europe’s. Citizens do not have a right to be supported by the government. Some claim they do and as proof point to Article 25 of the Constitution, which states that all people have the right to “maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living.” But Article 27 states that people have the right “and the obligation” to work. What this means in practice is that a person who applies for welfare must pass a rigorous screening process that can include personal disclosures, such as whether or not the applicant has access to support from a relative or even a lover.

NHK found that a substantial portion of the recipients are able-bodied males between the ages of 20 and 60. In the past, long-term welfare recipients belonged to one of three categories: elderly people, single mothers and the chronically ill or handicapped. The remaining recipients were people who were temporarily out of work, meaning their ranks were constantly changing. The number of unemployed in Japan hovers just under the 5 million mark, and as one case worker explained, most of the new additions to the welfare rolls are men who were employed as haken (contract workers), non-regular employees who could be laid off easily. After thousands of these workers lost their jobs in the financial meltdown of 2008, the Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare issued a directive to local governments to ease up on the requirements for receiving welfare. In principle, people who can work don’t qualify, but in order to provide relief to this large group of newly unemployed workers, the government said that they now did.

The central government is now asking local governments to refuse welfare payments to men who can work. That’s easier said than done, especially with the present job market. Employers are increasingly demanding specific skills, if not experience, even for minimum-wage jobs such as food service. Many of these unemployed welfare recipients, including those who want to work, don’t qualify. According to antipoverty activist Makoto Yuasa, who was interviewed on the program, taking away welfare could be “dangerous,” because the next step down for these men is “nothingness.”