Steadily proceed with measures without rose-colored glasses

The number of children on waiting lists to enter certified nursery schools has recently declined, but the government cannot drop its guard. Efforts must be advanced to make steady progress in creating relevant facilities and securing childcare workers.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, there were 2,944 children on nursery school waiting lists as of April this year, the lowest number since statistics started being kept in 1994. This latest figure is about one-ninth of the peak recorded in 2017.

In an effort to promote women’s employment, the government has advocated a key policy of reducing the number of children on waiting lists to zero and has increased subsidies for the development of relevant facilities. Urban municipalities with many children waiting made use of such projects, and it can be said they achieved results by working to develop relevant facilities.

The central government has a policy to provide childcare services for about 140,000 children over the four-year period from fiscal 2021 through fiscal 2024. With the chronically low birthrate, it is important to make persistent efforts to create a better environment for people to have and raise children.

The efficacy of central government measures, however, was not the only factor behind the declining number of children waiting to enter nursery schools. In a central government survey of local governments, many cited an increase in the number of parents who refrained from sending their children to childcare facilities over fears of infection with the novel coronavirus amid the pandemic.

Due to repeated requests for shorter operating hours at restaurants and other establishments, some people may have lost their jobs and become ineligible to use childcare facilities. Once infections are brought under control and economic activities fully pick up, demand for childcare services will likely rise again.

There are other issues surrounding childcare services.

While highly convenient facilities such as those located in front of train stations are flooded with applicants, suburban facilities fail to attract enough children, giving rise to an imbalance, as some have pointed out.

In Nagareyama, Chiba Prefecture, the city government has set up bases in front of two train stations in the city to provide bus services to send children to and from facilities in the suburbs. According to the city government, the number of children on waiting lists in the city has dropped from 146 in 2016 to three. Expanding such efforts is ideal.

The shortage of childcare workers remains serious. There are more than 1.6 million certified childcare workers nationwide, but only about 4 in 10 are said to be actually working as such. Poor treatment while dealing with heavy job responsibilities also appears to be a reason people avoid getting such jobs.

In February this year, the central government established a new subsidy system for facilities, aiming to raise the monthly wage of childcare workers by about 3%. It is important to use such mechanisms to improve workers’ treatment.

When children start attending elementary school, working parents face another problem: where to send them after school. More than 13,000 youngsters are said to be on waiting lists for after-school children’s clubs that take care of them at such facilities as children’s centers. Improving the availability of care for school-age children is an urgent task.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 5, 2022)