Japan to announce fund to tackle child poverty

TOKYO - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was set to announce a fund to help alleviate child poverty Thursday, in a country where one in six children is classed as poor.

The move follows a law passed by parliament last year aimed at tackling an issue that critics say has long been swept under the carpet in the world's third-largest economy.

"The fact that the government recognises child poverty as a national issue is a big step," Aya Abe, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University who has been researching child poverty in Japan, told AFP.

"But the government should also make a financial commitment or set a goal of how much they want to reduce the poverty rate." In 2012, a record high 16.3 per cent of children aged 17 or under were living in poverty - defined as surviving on funds half that of the average disposable income.

That compares with 9.8 per cent in Britain and 21.2 per cent in the United States, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of rich countries.

The poverty rate jumped to 54.6 per cent for single-parent households in Japan, the worst in the OECD.

As part of the government's efforts, Abe will meet business leaders and support groups on Thursday evening to hammer out a strategy, including setting up a private fund to bolster welfare payments criticised by campaigners as too small.

They cite the cash allowances currently given to low-income single-parent households of up to 40,000 yen ($454) a month for the first child - topping up an earned annual income of just 1.18 million yen - a fifth of the national average.

Social stigma

Previous moves by the government "cannot be called big progress," said Koji Ogawa, a former spokesman for Ashinaga, a nonprofit group that provides grants to children who have lost one or both parents, because the government is not promising any financial contribution.

But, he said, "a national campaign could be meaningful" because it might improve the discrimination and prejudice against people in poverty.

Single parents face strong social stigma in conservative Japan.

Most recently, the mother of a 13-year-old schoolboy who was murdered in February, probably by a gang of youths, publicly blamed herself for his death, saying he would not have died if she had kept an eye on him.

She said she had not known what her son was doing because she was working day and night to raise her five children alone.

University student Ryohei Takahashi, who grew up in a single-parent household, welcomed the idea of a private fund to reduce child poverty.

Takahashi's father committed suicide when he was 13 and, since then, his mother has had to provide for the family.

"I consider myself lucky," said Takahashi, now 22. His mother did not have money for tuition but he won a scholarship and lives in an Ashinaga-funded dorm that serves breakfast and dinner.

Not many single-parent families can afford expensive university fees, he said. Even if children manage to get into university, some still have to juggle part-time jobs to send money to their families.

"I want companies to make an investment (in helping under-privileged children) because we'll definitely contribute to society in the future," he added.