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2009年3月 3日 (火)



--The Asahi Shimbun, March 2(IHT/Asahi: March 3,2009)

EDITORIAL: Nursery system reform


It was exactly two decades ago that the fertility rate, the average number of babies a woman gives birth to in her lifetime, hit 1.57--then an all-time low. It was a development that came to be known as the "1.57 shock." Since then, calls have mounted for measures to deal with falling birthrates. Today, women are still faced with the difficult decision of choosing between a career and having children.


Even when a woman wants to use child care services, there are often not enough day nurseries to go around. As a result, about 20,000 children remain on waiting lists. Many women must have given up having a child because of the circumstances they face.


The birthrate has not recovered and women still find it difficult to continue to work. Inevitably, the nation's labor force will be insufficient in years to come. There is no guarantee that pension and other social security programs can be maintained with such a diminishing workforce.


The key to resolving these concerns is to provide ample and high-quality child care service so that women can pursue both a career and motherhood.


A special committee of the Social Security Council, an advisory body to the minister of health, labor and welfare, has put together its first report on measures to provide child care service to everyone who needs it.


Of all the preschool children in Japan, 2.16 million now attend public day-nursery facilities and authorized facilities that receive public aid. In addition, 230,000 attend unauthorized nurseries. Together, the figure far exceeds the 1.67 million children who go to kindergartens.


What must be done to increase the number of day-nursery facilities?


According to one proposal, municipal governments could issue coupons to parents to allow them to sign contracts directly with day-nursery facilities, instead of through municipal governments.


This, the thinking went, would promote free competition among nurseries based on market principles. But there were also fears it could also create disparities in the quality of services being offered. Concern was also expressed about the risk of competitive selection, thereby creating a vacuum and leaving some areas without day-nursery facilities. For these reasons, the plan was abandoned.


In the report, the committee proposes that municipal governments guarantee public child care service to parents by issuing certificates recognizing their need for such services. In urban areas with numerous children waiting for their turn in day-nursery facilities, local governments currently tend to be overly strict in screening applications.


The report also proposes revisions to the current system under which prefectural governments would have the authority and discretion to approve the establishment of day-nursery facilities. The report proposes the introduction of a system that allows designated operators meeting minimum standards to set up facilities. The report also proposes a system that encourages new entries by private companies.


It is unclear whether the proposed reforms will effectively increase the number of day-nursery facilities. The reforms will be pointless if they only lead to poorer quality of services. Improving the working conditions of care-givers is essential.


A key issue is going to be funding. It is said the number of children awaiting their turn could potentially reach 1 million. It is estimated that about 700 billion yen will be necessary for running fees alone to provide services to those children.


The reform plan is based on the premise of an increase in the consumption tax rate, but there is no knowing when that will happen.


Compared with European nations, Japan allocates less public budget funding for families and children.


Many countries, Sweden for example, have combined the operations of kindergartens and nurseries and placed heavy emphasis on child care and early education. As a result, they have a sufficient number of workers in that sector.


In comparison, Japan is thought to be more than a decade behind.


In the midst of this recession, more people are hoping to place their children in child care so they can go to work. Improving child care should be given much higher priority, and the government should allocate funds accordingly.


"Investing for the future" should not be delayed. It should be put into practice as soon as possible.



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