Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Light Blue for Boys, Pink for Girls, Yellow for Flashing Warning Lights

Chihō bunken - "decentralization"-- the verbal smokescreen deployed by those advocating pseudo-reforms that eviscerate citizens services while failing to increase transparency or stamp out fraud and waste. See "shell game" and "horse manure."

According to today's Yomiuri Shimbun, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour is considering relaxing national minimal standards on the facilities and grounds for day care centers (hoikuen) in favor of allowing local municipalities to set their own standards.

Uh-oh. A problem nobody thought existed is about to be solved by the tempting local municipalities to skimp on childcare facilities.

Niwa Uchirō, the chairman of general trading giant Itochū and the Chairman of the Commission for for the Promotion of Government Decentralization (Chihō Bunken Kaikaku Suishin Iinkai) presents the planned relaxation of national standards of the sizes of rooms and playgrounds as responding to the regional (environmental?) variation:

"Having a single standard from Hokkaidō to Okinawa is bizarre. There is no scientific basis for it."

But Niwa-san, the proposed revision is not about the maximum size of facilities, of the area of open space, indoors and outdoors, per child. If we were talking about taking advantage of regional differences, the ability to expand the beyond the minimum grounds would make sense--as land is abundant in all but a few areas.

The Yomiuri correspondent dutifully repeats the canard that this sudden plan to hand off to the local municipalities the ability to set the standards for child care facilities is necessary because relaxing the standards would make it possible to enroll more children in non-standard facilities, eliminating need for children to be on waiting lists.

In the example in the Yomiuri article, municipalities with children on waiting lists but insufficient open land to build a center to national standards could convert a floor of an office building near a train station into a day care center. Impoverished rural communities could convert old, unused elementary or middle schools into day care centers.

Now color me stupid, but this slide in the Ministry's own March 2008 Powerpoint presentation on Japan's day care facilities indicates to me that the Commission seems a little too eager to fulfill its mandate of promoting decentralization.

Slide #8 tells me the number of children on waiting lists to get into day care centers is 17,926.

You read that right: fewer than 18,000 children are on a waiting lists nationwide. At the same time, some 2.11 million children are currently enrolled in day care--meaning that over 99% of the children seeking immediate entry into day care centers are enrolled in facilities operating according to the current national standards.

There is no waiting list crisis.

What is more, the number of children on waiting lists has fallen by 31% over just the last five years, from 26,000 children in 2002 to under 18,000 in 2007. Given the decline in the number of children nationwide, this seems to a problem that is going to solve itself.

Furthermore, as the right graph shows, 70% of the children on waiting lists today are from 74 municipalities--with the remaining 30% coming from an additional 294 municipalities.

A small fraction of the country's total number municipalities

Now it may be the case that these municipalities are hard cases--chronically incapable of providing a sufficient number of open spaces at facilities that meet the minimum national day care center standards. Perhaps these hard-pressed municipalities need flexibility in terms of the minimal facilities so that they help their young parents.

But is the problem facilities? Some 70% of the children on waiting lists are under three years of age. The size of the facilities are usually not the issue for such children--the limiting factor is almost always is the number of caregivers that must be employed to watch over them. Under national guidelines, one caregiver can watch over 3 infants under 1 year of age or 6 toddlers of either 1 or 2 years of age.

When children turn 3 years of age and ratio of children to caregivers drops from 6:1 to 20:1--the number of kids on the waiting list falls.

The waiting list problem seems more likely an employment issue than a facilities issue.

So what is this about, this handing off of standard setting on childcare facilities to the local municipalities, having the municipalities set their own lower minimum standards for facilities, replacing the minimal standards first established in 1948 when the country was dirt poor?

Could it have anything to do with local officials possibly noticing that

a) young adults in the childbearing years vote too infrequently

b) children cannot vote at all

c) the number of children is falling

d) the number of the elderly is rising

e) young working parents (for the children to be eligible for the day care centers both parents must be working) are grateful for whatever childcare they can afford

f) the elderly, who also put heavy demands on government services, vote at the highest rate of all

g) in an era of limited resources something, somewhere has to give, doesn't it?

Of course, this is an exceptional case. One almost certainly could not find another example of decentralization encouraging the possible rationing of services out to special interest groups within the electorate.

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