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2009年8月27日 (木)

09総選挙 年金再建―対立超え安心の制度を

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 26(IHT/Asahi: August 27,2009)
EDITORIAL: Pension reform debate
09総選挙 年金再建―対立超え安心の制度を

The ruling and opposition camps have been at loggerheads over the issue of pension reform. The main bone of contention has been whether the system should be maintained in its current form or reconfigured into one financed by taxes. However, both sides are showing signs of changing their stances ahead of Sunday's election.

The ruling bloc had until recently insisted that the current system will be financially viable for 100 years. But it has finally admitted the program is fraying at the edges. The ruling camp has promised to shorten the minimum required period of enrollment to 10 years from the current 25 years. It has also pledged to tackle the problem of people who are not eligible to receive pension benefits, or are eligible for only a very small amount.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which has offered to guarantee minimum pension benefits financed by tax, has made it clear the system it envisions basically offers universal coverage as a social insurance program with premiums and benefits proportional to income. The proposed minimum guaranteed benefits would only serve as an income supplement for low-benefit recipients. The DPJ says it would create a new revenue agency to ensure premiums are collected from everybody obliged to pay.

Through their pension proposals, both camps seem to be aware of the need to stem the rise in people failing to pay into the system and providing support for people with no benefits, or small ones at best.

About 40 percent of the people covered by the national pension program, which was originally designed for self-employed people, are now employees, mainly nonregular ones. The fixed-sum premiums for the program represent a heavy financial burden for these employees. This is believed to be one factor behind the growing nonpayment of premiums.

The average of the monthly benefits under the program is 48,000 yen, well below the full benefit of 66,000 yen. Under the current system, monthly benefits are reduced if the overall revenue falls due to a contraction of the working-age population or if the total payouts grow because of prolonged life expectancy. There is actually no guarantee of minimum pension benefits.

What is the best remedy for these problems with the current system? There is undoubtedly room for constructive bipartisan talks since the ruling and opposition camps are proposing changes basically in the same direction, even though there are still differences in their approaches.

But the reform blueprints of both camps leave many important questions unanswered. As for promised relief for people facing retirement with no or scant pension benefits, the ruling camp has yet to say how much would be provided to whom. The DPJ's reform plan says nothing about what to do with the premiums paid by self-employed workers. The opposition party also leaves it unclear what would be done for people with no benefits or small ones during the transition to the new system.

To ensure fairness in the burdens and benefits, it is necessary to introduce a taxpayer identification number system to track people's income accurately. As the nation's population ages further, public spending on health and nursing care is bound to keep growing. The crucial question of how much taxpayer money should be devoted to pension reform requires an answer based on a comprehensive perspective that takes into consideration the future prospect of social security spending.

That makes it all the more important for all parties to make efforts to swiftly set up a forum so that national debate on pension reform can be started soon after the Lower House election.

A pension system demands long-term stability. The people's interests would not be served if every national election results in radical changes to the system.

Whichever party wins a public mandate in Sunday's Lower House election, it is the political responsibility of the entire legislature to build a pension system that can serve as a solid foundation for social security in this aging society. We hope to hear constructive, nonpartisan debate.


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