Sunday, May 13, 2012

Of The DPJ And Children - Special Mother's Day Edition

In my post of yesterday, I remarked that "(t)ackling the birth dearth has been of tertiary interest for the DPJ leadership -- which has been expending far more of its political capital on solving the budget and pension gaps through raising the level of taxation or goosing economic growth rather than raising the number of taxpayers." (Link)

While this is true, one small caveat is in order. While the proposed rise in the consumption tax to 10% (part of the bill dump the Democratic Party of Japan unloaded on upon the Diet this week) is slated to be used primarily to put the fiscal houses of the pension, medical and eldercare systems in some sort of order, a slice will be reserved for programs to increase the birthrate. According to the May 11 print edition of the Tokyo Shimbun, if the raising of the tax rate to 10% nets the predicted 13.5 trillion extra yen for the government, then 700 billion -- 5.2% of the total -- will be set aside for programs supporting the birth and raising of children.

It is to be presumed that the extra revenues set aside for measures to raise the birthrate (shoshika taisaku) will in part restore cutbacks in aid for families with children (kodomo teate) the DPJ promised in its 2009 election manifesto -- aid that the DPJ first had to halve because of budgetary constraints, then cut further and reduced to a needs-based system (jido teate) largely indistinguishable from the jido teate system in place under LDP rule (in an fit of pettiness, the LDP and the New Komeito made their votes for the new truncated system contingent on the revival of the jido teate name).

However, no one knows for certain what the DPJ intends to do with the 700 billion, if that amount can even be raised. No bill is in the works. No plan has been announced. All we have to go on is Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko's response to a question posed to him on Thursday by DPJ member Izumi Kenta:

"Througth the Comprehensive Reform, investment in the future will be strengthened. [The Comprehensive Reform] has a goal of bringing into being a social safety net responding to the needs of all generations. As for the revenues raised through the consumption tax to be devoted to children and childrearing, I believe this means that social safety for life's first half will be strengthened." (Link - J)

Did you get that? Do not be alarmed: it was designed to baffle. Luckily for Noda, he was being questioned by a member of his own party. An opposition member would have snapped, "Excuse me, but what the blazes does your answer mean?"

The setting aside of a portion of the revenues raised by the elevated consumption tax for children and childrearing -- whatever the plan for those revenues might be -- is not the only fundamental reform the DPJ has proposed for government programs for children. In order to implement a reform I am not sure anyone asked for and I do not think anyone can explain, the government on Thursday presented to the Diet three bills that together will unify Japan's bifurcated pre-school childcare systems.

That Japan has two systems of childcare run by two different ministries may look odd but is eminently rational. The day care system (hoikuen) is run by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. It is focused on the "Labour" part of the ministry's mandate -- that is providing childcare for mothers who work. It takes in children as young as two months of age, looks after them from around 7:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. (actual operation hours vary according to the center and extended hours are available, for an extra fee).

The kindergarten system (yochien) is run by the Ministry of Education. It is a pre-school, primarily the children of mothers who do not work or who work only part-time. The hours are limited, with the children being taken in at around 9:00 am and let out in the middle of the afternoon. It takes in children once they are three years of age. Its nominal focus is on education, unsurprising given the ministry that runs it, which means preparing the children for the habitudes of elementary school.

Aside from the cost aspect of having two seperate bureaucracies running parallel systems, there is little if any impetus for having the two systems merge. There is a hope that having yochien keeping hoikuen hours will cut down on the backlog of children on waiting lists to get into hoikuen. However, since the staff backgrounds and physical layouts of hoikuen are very different from those of yochien, the unification will lead to a period of confusion as new staff are trained or old staff retrained and centers have to be retrofitted or rebuilt.

Besides, as page 9 of the most recent Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare report on day care centers shows, the problems of insufficient day care center spaces is a relatively small and extremely localized phenomenon. Only 25,556 children are on waiting lists to get into day care centers, a miniscule number compared the national population and to to the hundreds of thousands on the waiting lists in the 1990s, before the government went on a day care center opening binge. Furthermore, as the red dot shows, the problem of insufficient spaces is concentrated inside the Tokyo Metropolitan District, where 31% of the children on waiting lists live. Twenty-six of the 47 prefectures have fewer than 100 children on waiting lists.

Overturning the apple cart because the TMD is a hard place to build day care centers (here is one area where Richard Katz's great bugaboo, the imposition of the tax rate for on bare land on agricultural land located inside urban areas, would result in a net social good. Otherwise, the imposition of taxes would be an ecological and psychological disaster, the urban farms providing the only green spaces and open sky in many neighborhoods) seems, on the face of it, reckless beyond reckoning.

The systems, bifurcated as they are, largely work. There is a possibility, but no one has the statistics to back it up, that the conversion of the abbreviated day yochien to full-day hoikuen will encourage more women to take full time jobs. There is also a possibility -- but again without any statistical evidence -- that the education focus of the yochien will somehow improve the atmosphere of hoikuen, making them better at preparing children for school. Whether hoikuen children perform less well in school, all other factors being equal, than yochien children, remains unproven. Indeed, given that hoikuen children have been living much of their first six years of life in group settings with strict schedules and egalitarian values, they would just as likely to do better in school environments than children raised primarily by their mothers.

With that, a Happy Mother's Day to you all.

Later - Credit where credit is due: the Liberal Democratic Party, for all its faults and whatever its reasons, is opposed to the DPJ plan for a merger of the two public childcare systems -- which has all the appearances of a reform for reform's sake.


Joe said...

It's not entirely reform for reform's sake - it will eventually have some real beneficial effects. Here in Shizuoka City, all of the public daycares and most of the private ones are full and have children on the waiting lists, whereas the kindergartens have a fair bit of unused capacity.

Claire said...

As someone with children who've been through both the hoikuen and yochien systems, I beg to differ. There have been attempts to merge the two for years - 認定こども園 were authorized in 2006, long before the DJP came to power - and it would actually be a very sensible measure, given that most families with two working parents want the educational content offered by yochiens combined with the full daycare hours provided by hoikuens. Yes, in many rural areas numbers of children are so small that there isn't an issue, but in cities finding a place in a hoikuen can be a real problem, whereas many yochiens are finding it hard to attract enough students to stay afloat. Unfortunately, it's unlikely to happen due to entrenched opposition from yochien operators, who would face real difficulties in covering the extra hours and who also have a superiority complex with respect to hoikuens." I see it not as a "reform for reform's sake" but as an attempt to respond to genuine demand from parents, and if the LDP really is opposing it they are being extremely cynical, especially seeing as they were the ones to introduce the idea in the first place.

MTC said...

Joe and Claire -

Thank you both for your comments.

1) If the problem is a few too many yochiens and a few too few hoikuens in a few places, then have a few yochiens in convert where the hoikuens in those places. Why mess up both systems with a nation-wide merger?

2) If the educational values instilled by the yochien are so vital, that should be the number one reason for the reform. However, no one is arguing this point. To my knowledge, no one has ever found any difference in between the school performance of the two groups of children. Factors such as wealth vs. poverty, happy family vs. broken families and single-parenthood overwhelm any differences in between yochien and hoikuen attendance..

Joe said...

MTC, I can't say anything about your second question, but as to the first, my colleagues have explained to me that the yochien/hoikuen system rules are a matter of national jurisdiction - local authorities are only empowered to carry out the system, but not make any changes as local needs may demand. Kasumigaseki takes a very, very dim view of the hicks from the sticks getting uppity. I imagine "decentralization" is a dirty word in the ministries.

MTC said...

Joe -

Hoikuen and yochien are hojin - legal persons - so presumably they should be free to change their own modes of operations within the legal definitions and regulations set down by law and the relevant ministries.

Claire said...

Almost all yochiens are privately operated, so local authorities don't have the authority to turn them into hoikuens, only to offer subsidies for those that offer extended hours or open hoikuens on their premises for children under three. A few savvy yochien operators are already doing this, but it's a drop in the bucket compared with the scale of the need. Converting yochiens to hoikuens also requires significant structural and staffing investment if they are to meet the existing legal standards for hoikuens in terms of space per child, on-site kitchen facilities, size of playground, ratio of qualified staff, and so on. Private operators can't afford to do this, which is why the 認定こども園 have relaxed standards somewhere between those for hoikuen and yochien (which are more realistic in urban areas where land for expansion isn't available).

It must be said, though, that the supposed educational benefits of yochien are greatly hyped. My older son went to hoikuen until elementary school, whereas my younger one to a "good" (i.e. popular and expensive) yochien from 3-6, and the older one actually got the better all-round education.

As an aside, there really is no need to have two completely separate systems of early childhood education operating in parallel under two separate ministries - here, if anywhere, there must be an opportunity to eliminate duplication and reduce administrative costs!