Govt’s rush to offer child benefits led to confusion at municipalities

The hasty decision by the government to provide benefits without clarifying its policy objectives may be behind the confusion. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida needs to take his responsibility seriously and make efforts to avoid further confusion.

A question-and-answer session on the supplementary budget for the current fiscal year was held at the House of Representatives Budget Committee. Junya Ogawa, chairperson of the Policy Research Council of the major opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, criticized the planned method of distributing the benefits worth ¥100,000 per child aged 18 or younger. “[The central government’s] insistence on using coupons [in combination with cash benefits] has caused considerable confusion among local governments,” he said.

Kishida explained, saying, “It is the result of taking into account various opinions to design a better system.” He expressed his intention to allow local governments to offer a lump-sum payment in cash if they wish.

The central government had planned to distribute ¥50,000 in cash by the end of the year and ¥50,000 in coupons next spring in the hope that the coupons would have a definite effect of boosting consumption.

However, the central government was forced to withdraw the initial plan after it was discovered that ¥96.7 billion would be necessary to print coupons and implement other administrative procedures, and local governments complained that the work would be complicated. The central government needs to explain the system carefully and thoroughly to local governments and facilitate the procedures smoothly.

In the first place, it is difficult to understand the necessity and purpose of the benefits this time — is it to support families in need or child-rearing? Although the central government has set limits on parents’ income, 90% of children aged 18 or younger will be eligible for the benefits. It is tantamount to a pork-barrel policy.

As a measure that involves a massive investment of ¥2 trillion, it must be said that the plan was poorly designed. It would be regrettable if the government and the ruling parties fell into a speed-before-quality approach because they wanted to hastily realize promises made in the latest lower house election.

However, the stance of opposition parties, which competed with the ruling camp to pledge cash handouts, will also be questioned.

To promptly deliver benefits to households in need of assistance, a system is needed in which governments understand individual residents’ incomes and provide benefits to them appropriately. Ruling and opposition parties must constructively discuss how to establish an effective system for future measures.

Another focus of political attention is the Constitution. Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, said, “Various issues have come to light because of the novel coronavirus pandemic,” calling for debates on states of emergency.

The current Constitution has few provisions for emergency situations. The Diet has a responsibility to tirelessly debate the nature of the nation’s top law, including how to deal with crises.

Opposition parties raised questions about a ruling Liberal Democratic Party chapter headed by former LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara that received government employment adjustment subsidies intended to help struggling businesses stay afloat during the pandemic. The prime minister said, “It is something that would never gain public understanding.”

It is problematic that a political party chapter that receives other subsidies from the central government made use of a system designed to help companies whose sales have declined due to the pandemic. Diet members are expected to have high ethical standards.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Dec. 15, 2021.