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Thinking about children's issues from the perspective of poverty

1. Introduction

What are the differences between child poverty and adult poverty? Poverty is relentless at any age. However, what makes it much more heartrending for children is the likelihood that, depending on the case, its negative effects could last a lifetime even after having escaped the condition itself. Malnutrition inhibits healthy growth. A sense of self doesn't fully develop without experiences of being loved. Furthermore, once a child is left far behind in educational advancement, it is difficult to catch up with others. This means that child poverty casts a dark shadow not only over a child's present, but also over his/her future. In this regard, it is significantly different from adult poverty.

In addition, children, unlike adults, have no way to escape poverty on their own and just have to accept their harsh circumstances. Though, needless to say, escaping poverty through their own efforts is difficult for adults as well, it is incomparably more difficult for children. Also in this respect, our society has to use all available means to help children living in poverty.

During the last decade, poverty had suddenly become a topic of frequent discussion. This provided a viewpoint from which to re-discover child poverty; an issue that had long been left unattained. In order to rescue children from poverty, the problem needs to be continually recognized and should be shared as common knowledge in society.

2. One out of every six children in Japan is living in poverty

How is poverty defined and measured? The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines poverty as living in a household in which (equivalent) disposable income, when adjusted for family size and composition, is less than 50% of the national median income. The OECD uses a poverty line set at 50% of median income (OECD, Report Card 10). Disposable income is the total income of a household after income tax and social insurance fee deductions (so-called actual income). The poverty line in Japan is set at about JPY2,500,000 a year for a family of 4, though it changes slightly by year.

The poverty rate is the ratio of the number of people who fall below the poverty line. This is applied by many international organizations and researchers and is a very common way to measure the extent of the poverty. Based on this method, the child poverty rate is the ratio of the number of children aged 17 and under living in poverty.

The child poverty rate in Japan as reported by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare was 15.7% in 2009, which means one out of every six children was living poverty. When the administration of the Democratic Party of Japan announced the child poverty rate for the first time, 14.2% (as of 2006) was perceived as being shockingly high and this raised some questions. Furthermore, the rate is still increasing.

In May 2012, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre announced the result of an international comparison of child poverty rates in economically advanced nations. According to this comparison, the child poverty rate in Japan is the ninth highest among 35 OECD countries. Considering that Japan has the world's third largest economy, the child poverty rate is remarkably high.


Figure 1. Changes by year (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare: National Livelihood Survey, 2010)
*1. The poverty rate in 2004 does not include data from Hyogo prefecture.
*2. The poverty rate is produced based on the definition used by the OECD.
*3. An adult is a person aged 18 or over and a child is 17 or under. A working-age household is a household headed by a person aged 18- 64.
*4. Household members whose equivalent incomes are not known are not included.

3. The poverty rate had been high even during the bubble economy

As these poverty rates in Japan were reported during a long-faltering economy, they tend to be taken as a sign of a stagnant economy. Feelings of resignation such as, "It's a recession, so it can't be helped," or "It's not only children who are suffering" are also pervasive. However, even in the past, the child poverty rates in Japan had been high compared to other countries. It was 10.9% in 1985 and 12.9% even in the bubble economy of 1988. It was higher than 14% during the booming economy under the Koizumi administration. Regardless of the state of the economy, government policies have continued to be insensitive toward impoverished child-rearing families.

The child poverty rate is measured by comparison of relative actual income, as seen in the definition of the OECD. This means that it varies depending on the economic circumstance of households with children or how society supports them economically, regardless of a nation's GDP.

According to data from UNICEF, the second highest child poverty rate (23.1%) is that of the United States, the world's wealthiest country. Also among economically advanced nations, the rate in Germany is 8.5% and in France 8.8%, far below the rate in Japan. In Germany and France, policies such as child allowance or elimination of tuition fees are substantial. The lowest rates have been achieved in four Nordic countries: Finland 5.3%, Norway 6.1%, Denmark 6.5% and Sweden 7.3%.

4. The child poverty rate can be improved

Aya Abe, researcher of the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research cites inefficiency of the government's efforts to reduce poverty as a main characteristic of child poverty in Japan. In other words, the child poverty rate hardly improves even after redistribution. Redistribution is the act of a government allocating money that the public has paid in taxes or social insurance fee back to the public in the form of benefits such as public assistance, child allowance and so forth. In general, after redistribution the rate is expected to improve. However, in Japan, the child poverty rate hardly changes before and after redistribution. During the Liberal Democratic Party's administration when child allowance had not yet been introduced, the rate was even higher after redistribution. To put it more clearly, Japanese society had spent money that its citizens had paid in taxes or social insurance fee mostly on the elderly, ignoring benefits for households with children.

Aya Abe also pointed to a prominently higher poverty rate among single-mother households as being a significant characteristic in Japan. Approximately 60% of single-mother households fall below the poverty line, which is quite unique to Japan among advanced countries. In Japan, employment is premised on the assumption that employees are given solid financial stability and a social position in exchange for being subservient to companies rather than just working for them. For that reason, stable employment for mothers, who have to devote a lot of time to child-rearing, is quite limited. Many of them are engaged in part time or temporary work for much lower wages under unstable employment, which means that they do not have any chance to receive a raise and can be dismissed at anytime. A nationwide survey of single-mother households in 2011 by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare shows that the average annual employment income among single mothers is just JPY1,810,000, about half of that among single fathers.

Furthermore, poverty among young people has recently become a serious problem. According to a labor force survey by the Statistics Bureau of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the percentage of non-regular employment among young people aged 15-24 is 45% for men and 55% for women, more than double compared to a decade ago. It can easily be imagined that the marriage rate among young people has drastically declined and that many young married couples with children are suffering from poverty.

What is understood from these findings is that the poverty rate can be improved by changing government policy, the nation's system and basically the whole concept of what society should be. The idea that economic growth and market revitalization are the only prescriptions against poverty is a falsehood. Improving the poverty rate depends on people's sense of value and what society thinks is important and puts priority on.


Figure 2: Child poverty rate, Report Card 10, Innocenti Research Centre, UNICEF
(Percentage of children living in households with an equivalent income lower than 50% of the national median)

5. Introducing the perspective of child poverty to Child Science

For those of us who study Child Science, what kind of meaning does it have to think about child poverty? The author has been editing a magazine that deals with children's issues over a number of years and is now in charge of general management of the Japanese Society of Child Science as a secretary-general. For close to two decades I have done feature magazine articles and have held symposiums and lectures concerning various children's problems while discussing these issues with many researchers and professionals in pedagogy, developmental psychology, pediatrics and so forth. However, rarely have we taken on these problems from the perspective of poverty.

However, in recent years, child poverty suddenly came to be an issue and when reading books about child poverty I cannot help but feel a sense of regret that many of the agendas we dealt with in the past could not bring about effective discussion due to a lack of perspective on poverty. For example, had we added the viewpoint of poverty to the problems of children, such as non-attendance at school, abuse, delinquency, low academic achievement and so forth, we would have had much more meaningful discussions that recognized the actual situations at hand. I find it unfortunate that this was not the case.

6. Reasons why poverty is hard to discuss

There are several reasons why the theme of poverty had not been brought up in discussing children's issues. The first was based on the unspoken agreement that we should not relate children's problems to poverty since it runs a risk of hurting the feelings of a needy family and of excluding them from the community. People in education were especially very sensitive about taking such a risk. Recently, many sociological surveys concerning the relation between academic ability and financial background were published and the term, "cycle of poverty" became commonly known even among ordinary people. However, until then, these ideas related to poverty had long been regarded as taboo.

Furthermore, research and surveys on poor families require a great deal of time and effort. It is difficult to ask about details of family finances from the aspect of privacy. Moreover, there may even be parents who feel outrage at having their family regarded as being poor or toward people who relate their child's problem to poverty. With the exception of sociologists whose main theme is the problem of poverty or researchers who are often in contact with poor families in order to support them from the viewpoint of child welfare, poverty is a very sensitive and difficult theme to deal with.

Still, I don't think the difficulty stems from those clear-cut reasons, but rather from the fact that most researchers simply do not have a clear image of poverty itself. From the beginning, researchers at universities had been raised without the experience of having contact with people from poor families. To have received years of education, including graduate school, in order to become a teacher of higher education, it would have been necessary for their parents to have had sufficient finances. Most researchers had been high-achieving students who entered a competitive school and had been raised surrounded by other bright children from a similar income bracket. Even when they try to do something about children's issues, there are very few researchers who can easily imagine the situations of families in extreme poverty or parents with low education. In addition to that, since pedagogy, psychology and so forth tend to base their research on an average child whose minimal economic circumstances are secured, children in poor families become farther and farther removed from researchers' awareness.

7. Excluded poor people in advanced nations

The truth of the matter is that the difficulty in raising awareness about poverty is deeply related to the nature of poverty. This becomes especially important when thinking about poverty in advanced nations.

There are some who say that though the poverty rate in Japan is increasing, its poverty level is still much better in comparison with levels in developing countries. But in fact, there are aspects in which poverty in advanced nations is more relentless than poverty in developing nations.

For example, in developing countries, poor people can be seen everywhere. On the streets there are various kinds of beggars and in the shadows there are prostitutes. Children plot to get tips by taking tourists to souvenir shops. The hungry try to get scraps of bread by hanging around restaurants. There, poverty is too pervasive to be hidden and there is less likelihood that a person will be excluded only because he or she is poor.

In contrast, in advanced countries, it is hard to recognize poverty so it tends to be excluded. In a prosperous society, poverty is uncommon; a phenomenon people want to refuse to acknowledge if possible. It is not an issue everyone wants to share. Especially, in a society like Japan where people put importance on cleanliness and homogeneity, impoverished people are likely to hesitate to reveal their plight. There are even those who commit suicide not because of poverty itself but because of the shame they feel about being poor.

There are societies in which hungry people, far from being able to enjoy a delicious meal themselves, cannot even approach someone having a feast right before their eyes and in which uneaten food is simply thrown in the trash. On the other hand, there are societies in which everyone is so terribly hungry that they fall over each other to get food without the least bit of shame. Both are relentless, but the nature of their plight is different.

Pressure to exclude the poor is stronger in advanced countries than in developing ones. People who have fallen into poverty are likely to be excluded from employment, the social system, family and society, and have nowhere to go. They are then erased from the minds of people who are living an ordinary life. Children in poor families are in a similarly vulnerable situation. That is why we should make a conscious effort to raise the issue of child poverty.

8. Getting over the difficulty of looking at poverty

Makoto Yuasa, a former advisor to the Cabinet Office who has been working for homeless people and advocating for their rights stated that, "The most prominent characteristic of poverty is that it's invisible, which makes it difficult to grasp the problems and actual situations involved." He then added that, "Seeing or visualizing poverty concurrently includes trying to see circumstances and conditions of people in poverty that we cannot see from the surface.

Poverty is not only a financial plight. It includes various problems that are derived from poverty. Trouble in daily life is often seen as being caused not by poverty, but by personality problems. In this way, impoverished people are sometimes excluded from society rather than rescued by it. For example, children who are neglected by parents who are struggling to make a living are at a risk of being negatively labeled as just dirty, sloppy, or stupid.

There is an excellent way of thinking in the field of child welfare that states, "Troublesome children are children in trouble." Whenever discussing children's issues, the topic of troubled children must be raised. Problems may be seen in a completely different light if they are considered from the perspective of child poverty.

We have to strengthen our ability to imagine in order to address children's problems.

The original essay was written in Japanese and published in JAPANESE JOURNAL OF CLINICAL DENTISTRY FOR CHILDREN ® on Dec. 2012 (vol. 17, no. 12) as the second part of a series titled "Syouni shikai ga shitteokitai kodomogaku (Child Science that Pedodontists Should Know).
Child Research Net would like to thank the Japanese Society of Practitioners for pediatric Dentistry for permitting translation and reproduction of this article on the CRN website.


  • "Child Poverty", Aya Abe, Iwanami Shinsho, 2008
  • Summary of Nation's Livelihood Research, 2010, from the website of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare
  • "Child Poverty - The Actual Situation in Japan", NHK Viewpoint and Issue, Aya Abe, broadcasted on June 5, 2012
  • Survey of Single-mother Households 2011, from the website of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare
  • "Anti-poverty", Makoto Yuasa, Iwanami Shinsho, 2008

Makoto Kinoshita
Secretary-general, Japanese Society of Child Science. CRN Researcher. Free-lance writer. Born 1957. Graduated from Waseda University, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences. From 1993-1996, planning and editing of the journal "Kikan Kodomogaku" (Benesse Corporation), an interdisciplinary research periodical on Child Science. Staff writer for “Clover,” job placement journal for the disabled. Currently, researcher for TV program on post-earthquake recovery.
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