A fierce debate is currently taking place over child allowance. As one of the pledges the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has made in its election manifesto, the ruling coalition is putting all its effort into criticisms of the DPJ’s failure to identify a concrete source of funding for it. For both sides the bottom line is money, but that’s hardly a satisfying point of contention. When we’re talking about the future of the country and those who will guide us through it, are the current discussions sufficient?
It’s not that I believe the sensibilities of today’s politicians are obsolete. With a possible regime change contingent upon the outcome of the upcoming House of Representatives election, the two sides have been pushed into mutual mudslinging, leaving their battle in a stalemate.
The child allowance at the center of the controversy is the DPJ’s plan to provide families with children 26,000 yen per month per child until they graduate from junior high school. There is no income limit according to the proposal, which means all children will receive the allowance.
A look at the existing childcare allowance is all one needs to understand how generous the proposed amount is. Currently, children are eligible for childcare allowance only through elementary school. Families receive 5,000 yen per month for their first and second children, and 10,000 per month for their third child onwards. The rules changed two years ago to provide 10,000 yen per month to all children under 3 years of age. The benefits are all income-tested.
Funding for the current childcare allowance is split between the national and local governments and private corporations and amounts to 1 trillion yen per year, of which 270 billion yen comes from the national government. The national government’s share of the child allowance proposed by the DPJ is expected to be 5.3 trillion yen.
The childcare allowance was first set up in 1972 by an LDP government, and has been expanded under the leadership of Komeito since the establishment of the coalition government. During this time, it was the DPJ that objected to law revisions four times. As a result, to Komeito, the DPJ’s sudden devotion to a new child allowance appears a little late in coming.
I wouldn’t say that the DPJ’s child allowance proposal is a mere campaign strategy, but I’d be lying if I said I thought there is no self-interest at work. Initially the DPJ had proposed to offer 16,000 yen per month for each child. But then, Ichiro Ozawa, the “master of elections,” raised the amount to 26,000 yen.
It is a handout in the sense that the money will be distributed evenly to families with children, but it is in no way a meaningless policy. According to a 2005 study of the country’s reproductive trends by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in 2005, the top reason married couples cited for not having children was the “high cost of child-rearing and education,” at 66 percent among couples in general and 84 percent among couples in their late 20s.
Some say that to combat the declining birthrate, it is more important to improve childcare services and facilities than simply to hand out cash. Meanwhile, there are others who argue that any proposal that does not integrate the issues of employment, education, and social security into a comprehensive policy is meaningless. Still others wonder whether measures against the declining birthrate are even necessary.
The reason the ruling coalition and the DPJ are not addressing these wide-ranging issues and angles, and are instead framing their policies in terms of the national budget and the pros and cons of each plan on the public’s family finances is all too clear. The DPJ wants to take over the government by promising to reduce everyday expenses, while the ruling coalition wants to protect its place in government by stabbing at the DPJ’s shaky funding plans. The pocketbooks of both the nation and the general public have become the focal point of the general election.
Nara period poet and politician Yamanoue no Okura wrote in a famous poem that “neither silver nor gold nor jewels” can “compare with the treasure of a child.”
In order to discuss the issue of children in a way that goes beyond the gains and losses for parents, it is necessary to first hold the shared feeling that children are gifts to society as a whole. (By Takao Yamada, Expert Senior Writer)
(Mainichi Japan) July 27, 2009