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Child Poverty and Child-Caring Design in Social Welfare

Nowadays, we tend to hear a lot about child poverty in various contexts, in particular, in relation to child abuse and other social welfare issues. For me, it first came up at a meeting of directors of the International Pediatrics Society in the 1980s. At the time, many international institutions and conferences were concerned with the growing gap between the poorest nations, on the one hand, and the industrialized nations and even developing nations, on the other. Much of this concern was focused on Sub-Saharan Africa, home to nearly 10% of world's population. Here, almost 40% of the population were among the poorest, living on less than a dollar a day. Furthermore, over 20% were illiterate, nearly 20% were victims of civil strife, and AIDS had claimed lives of many and the average life span as mid-forties.

In this region neglected by global society, children suffer from starvation, are unable to receive an education, and die from various infectious diseases. The International Pediatrics Society was asked to help with these problems and to do something about this situation. First, we decided to support the African Pediatric Society in raising its capabilities. As chair and director of the International Pediatric Society, I visited Kenya, Nairobi and Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire to lecture and met with the respective leaders to ask for their support.

Poverty in Japan, in particular, child poverty, began receiving attention as a social problem about ten years ago when the OECD started comparing poverty rates among the member nations. Even in relatively affluent countries, widening disparity and poverty had emerged as glaring problems. Child poverty was indicated as particular problem in Japan. Of course, it was a problem in other affluent countries, too, but by comparison, the percentages for Japan were much higher, meaning that a surprisingly high number of children were living in poverty in Japan.

Poverty refers to a situation in which it is difficult to lead a minimal existence for economic reasons and is classified into absolute or relative poverty. The World Bank defines absolute poverty as living on income of $1.00 or less a day, which would mean homelessness or starvation. Relative poverty is defined by comparison with an affluent segment of the population in a region or country that enjoys a certain level of comfort.

The OECD defines relative poverty as income that falls below half of the median income, or the poverty line, after taxes and social insurance premiums are deducted from total household income including social welfare payments, etc. The percentage of the population living under this poverty line is the relative poverty rate.

The relative poverty rate of children refers to the percentage of children out of the total population who are below the poverty line. In 2007 (2006 survey), the relative poverty rate in Japan was 15.7%, and 14.2% for children. In the past decade since 2000, Japan's percentage has surpassed the OECD average, rising slightly above the median of the 30 OECD countries. Recent surveys indicate that relative child poverty rates are lowest in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Australia. They are highest in Turkey, Mexico, Poland, USA, and Spain. France is the fifth or sixth from the bottom, and Italy and Germany are slightly higher than Japan. However, it should be noted that the child poverty rate in Japan continues to steadily rise relative to other countries and the poverty rate of one-parent families is particularly high, in fact, the highest in the world.*1

How did child poverty become a problem? Various surveys indicate that the causes are deeply related to child-related problems. When research in the US compared two regions with a high and low child poverty rate of about 60% and 2% respectively, other quite shocking correlations were reported. In regions with the high child poverty rate, the percentage of child abuse was about 250% higher, incidence of teenage pregnancy was 30 times higher, underweight birth was about 4 times higher, and infant mortality was about 40 times higher. *2

Similar trends are apparent in Japan. In Tokyo, "economic reasons" are reported as the main cause of child abuse, at a rate that is 1.2 times greater than "child rearing fatigue." Other reasons given include "single parenting," "isolation from social environment," or "marital strife," but "economic reasons" are inseparable background factor. Moreover, the "child-rearing fatigue" is reported to be deeply related to "economic reasons."*3

These results suggest there are problems with social welfare policies of Japan. From the point of view of the national budget, the deficit is a problem, but it has also become a condition that we have to work with, and for this reason, the social welfare must take child-caring design into consideration so that it really helps children in their lives.

In thinking about the future, we clearly need to change the things and thinking of the older social order into a child-caring design that will build healthy minds and bodies of children in the future. This is the something that I have been emphasizing for some time now. In particular, what we really need now is social welfare policies and practices based on child-caring design that will help children at risk.

*1:Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare

*2:Yamano, Ryoichi, "Children and Family Poverty." Paper presented at "Supporting Families," sponsored by the Children's Rainbow Center, March 10, 2010.

*3:"Current Situation of Child Abuse II," Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health, Tokyo Metropolitan Government, December 2005.

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