Strengthen safety net to protect vulnerable households amid pandemic

As the spread of the novel coronavirus continues unabated, more and more people are finding it difficult to make ends meet. The government has decided to provide up to ¥300,000 to households in need.

It is expected that 200,000 households will be covered, and ¥50 billion has been secured in the budget for this fiscal year.

Last year’s special cash benefit of ¥100,000 per person was uniformly distributed to all citizens, including those with high incomes. This time, the benefit will be given to households in extreme poverty, such as those whose income has plummeted. It is appropriate to support livelihoods and strengthen the social safety net.

Monthly payments of ¥60,000 will be available for single-person households, ¥80,000 for two-person households, and ¥100,000 for households with three or more members. The plan is for the payments to be available from July or later for three months. The benefit should be delivered promptly to those who need support in cooperation with local governments.

People who are eligible for the program are those who have taken advantage of the maximum amount of the government’s special loan programs, such as the general support funds, and cannot use any more loan programs that require repayment. At the same time, there are conditions such as being willing to work and having consulted with Hello Work job placement offices about seeking employment.

In addition, following the extension of the state of emergency, the government has decided to extend the application deadline until the end of August for small emergency funds through which people mainly affected by temporary work stoppages can get a loan of ¥200,000, and general support funds through which the unemployed and others can borrow ¥200,000 per month.

A special feature of the loans is that the money does not have to be paid back if the borrower is exempt from resident tax on the designated repayment date, but this is not widely known. The government needs to make sure that people know about it.

In addition to the temporary support measures, it is also necessary to make it easier for people to use the public assistance program, which is regarded as the “last safety net.”

Nearly 230,000 applications for the program were received in fiscal 2020 amid the pandemic. It is the first time the number of applications has exceeded that of the previous fiscal year since fiscal 2009, after the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers had triggered a financial crisis. The importance of the program is increasing.

Local governments contact the relatives of public assistance program applicants to check if they can provide support. It is said that this inquiry is one of the reasons why some people hesitate to apply for the program: Applicants do not want their relatives to know even if they are actually in need.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has issued a notice to local governments stating that they do not have to contact the relatives of applicants if after carefully listening to their circumstances it is determined that they are unlikely to receive support. This is expected to lower the hurdle for applicants.

On its website, the ministry emphasizes that it is the right of citizens to apply for the public assistance program and makes an unusual appeal to the public, saying, “Please make consultations without hesitation.” Local governments are urged to take into consideration the circumstances of applicants who have fallen on hard times and operate the system appropriately.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on June 4, 2021.