Editorial: 13% of children live in poverty—stop the pandemic from exacerbating inequality

July 24, 2020 Ryukyu Shimpo

According to the latest National Lifestyle Survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the childhood poverty rate in Japan is at 13.5%, meaning one in seven children live in poverty. The result indicates no improvement was made since the previous survey conducted three years ago.

The latest survey was conducted in 2019, and does not reflect the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and it is safe to assume the current situation is even worse. To ensure that children are not forced into instability, the widening economic inequality must be addressed.

The situation is dire in Okinawa, where the childhood poverty rate is twice the national average; the prefectural government estimated that 29.9%, or one in three children, lived in poverty in Okinawa during the fiscal year 2015.

In order to break the vicious cycle of poverty, every child regardless of their parents’ economic situation, must be provided equal education opportunities. However, in reality, economic inequality causes educational inequality.

According to a prefectural survey focused on high school students, during fiscal year 2019, 49% of high school students in economic hardship had part-time work experience, and 88% of parents responded that their economic circumstances did not allow them to afford supplemental learning tools for their children. Poverty deprives students of educational opportunities and crushes motivation, ultimately affecting their career path.

The biggest factor contributing to these issues is the insufficiency of public funds for education. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Japan’s public expenditure allocated for education in proportion to GDP was the lowest among the 35 comparable countries in 2016. Since education expenses are mostly shouldered by families, the parents’ economic situation ultimately determines a child’s access to education.

In order to solve childhood poverty, it is incumbent upon the central and local governments to significantly increase the education budget and reduce the burden on each household.

Meanwhile, many employees have been placed on furlough or have been laid off due to the pandemic, necessitating fast, direct measures to ensure that children receive the education they need.

According to a survey conducted in April by the NPO, Single Mothers’ Forum, 54.4% of single mothers responded that their household income would be reduced or completely lost, due to the pandemic. Households with lower wages and unstable employment conditions are affected most by the pandemic.

Furthermore, household income has decreased among single-parent households in which the parent was forced to take time off from work, due to the temporary closure of schools. Since children no longer have access to school lunches, parents are faced with increased food expenses, leading to reports of children not having access to food.

Schools are increasingly shifting to remote teaching as a countermeasure to the pandemic, but availability of internet access at home may exacerbate educational inequality. These issues of childcare and education need to be resolved before the second wave of the pandemic hits.

It is clear we need increased childcare allowance and child support from the government, free internet access for online schooling, reduced or free tuition, job security for parents with children, and a significant aid package to ensure that impoverished parents are not left behind.

(English translation by T&CT and Monica Shingaki)

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