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Japan’s latest pandemic support program met with mixed response

A benefit program to be implemented as part of the government’s envisioned economic stimulus package has drawn mixed reactions, with some are thankful there will be speedy assistance for the needy while others are concerned that low-income workers are being ignored.

Yumiko Watanabe, chief of Kidsdoor, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization supporting poor child-rearing families, welcomed the ¥100,000 benefit program for people age 18 or under, which is planned as a centerpiece of the new stimulus package to be compiled on Friday.

“Poor households are struggling to secure everyday food,” Watanabe said. “We appreciate that the cash grant will be provided by year-end.”

For the benefit program, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, Komeito, have agreed to provide ¥50,000 in cash per child by year-end and the remaining ¥50,000 in the form of shopping vouchers by next spring.

The ruling parties also agreed to introduce an annual household income cap of ¥9.6 million for the program.

While about 90% of all child-rearing households will be receiving the benefits, Watanabe said the grant should rather be given to the poor.

In September, Kidsdoor looked into the economic situations of 723 households to which the NPO provided food support and found that 75% of them earned less than ¥2 million annually.

“The ¥100,000 benefit is not enough to solve the issue. We want it to be the first step toward permanent improvement — such as extending the child allowance coverage period to support needy households until children finish high school,” Watanabe said.

Also as part of the economic package, and partly aimed at cushioning the fallout of the COVID-19 crisis, the government plans to grant ¥100,000 in cash to households with incomes low enough to be exempt from residential tax payment and provide reward points worth up to ¥20,000 in stages to new holders of the My Number social security and taxation identification card.

Tsuyoshi Inaba, head of Tsukuroi Tokyo Fund, a Tokyo-based group supporting poor people, said it is not clear whether the government is trying to help child-rearing families, assist poor people or spread use of the My Number card.

“In Tokyo’s 23 wards, single-person households with an annual income of below about ¥1 million are covered (by the benefit program for poor households). This means that poor workers earning ¥1 million to ¥2 million are being ignored,” Inaba said.

According to the health ministry, the number of applicants for welfare benefits increased 10.0% from a year before in August. The COVID-19 crisis has become a driver of inequality in Japan, which Inaba describes as “a very serious situation.”

“It would be quicker and better to provide a blanket grant and tax the rich more,” Inaba said, adding that countermeasures will not be able to keep up with the expansion of poverty unless existing social safety nets, such as welfare benefits and a rent relief program, are enhanced.

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