Cool to be kind: Air conditioners for the needy
On Aug. 1, the Tokyo prefectural government started a program that provides up to ¥40,000 to certain households so that they can buy air conditioners and have them installed. Considering how much newsprint, cyberspace and air time has been dedicated this summer to the subject of saving energy and the amount of electricity an air conditioner uses, it seems a rather strange program. According to the Tokyo Shimbun, only about 700 households are estimated to qualify for the grant. To receive the money the household must already be receiving welfare from the central government and have at least one member over 65 years of age whose physician recommends an air conditioner to prevent heat stroke.
It’s the first time any government, local or otherwise, has earmarked specific funds so that private individuals can buy air conditioners. Until, say, 25 years ago in Japan, air conditioners were considered luxuries, which meant that welfare recipients couldn’t even own one if they wanted to continue receiving benefits. In Japan, traditionally, owning certain household appliances, or even a car, meant that automatically you couldn’t receive welfare, regardless of your income because such items indicated you had spent the money you received on something you didn’t need to survive, even if, in fact, you had received said item before going on welfare. That’s the reasoning behind welfare: Receiving the minimum to get by. Even TVs were forbidden at one time, and it was common for welfare recipients to hide them when the social worker (minseiin) came to check up on them. Obviously, air conditioners are now considered necessities.
They are also relatively expensive, and ¥40,000 is not enough to purchase any but the extreme lowest end model. But there’s a nationwide nonprofit organization, founded in 1951, called the Japan National Council of Social Welfare, which lends money to welfare recipients who need supplemental cash for life’s necessities. The amounts lent out are small, usually never more than ¥100,000, but they only go to welfare recipients who have supplemental incomes, such as national pensions (many elderly people in Japan receive both a pension and welfare). Consequently, in order to implement the air conditioner giveaway, the national government first had to revise the welfare laws. Previously, if a welfare recipient received extra income , such as a loan, that amount was subtracted from the monthly benefit payment, thus making it more difficult for households approved for the air conditioner grant to make up the difference in the cost of a unit. On July 19, the Diet, thanks to the Japan Communist Party, revised the welfare law so that supplemental income spent on air conditioners is not subtracted from the welfare payment.
The reason for the program is clear, if perhaps a bit counterintuitive given the power-saving rhetoric being thrown around, but it automatically leads to another problem that no one seems to have addressed. Once an approved household installs its air conditioner, its electric bill will invariably soar, since air conditioners, even energy-saving models (which usually cost more), use a lot of power, as we’re relentlessly told. Will the Tokyo prefectural government have to come up with another grant for electric bills?