Government says all single parents not created equal

February 2nd, 2013 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Edit!: Guideline for widow exemption from English language Income Tax Guide for 2009

Last fall a single mother living in Osaka started a petition to get the city government to reduce the fees she paid for daycare. Her argument is based on the widow’s exemption (kafu kojo), which is granted to certain people on their income tax returns. Though many single parents qualify for the exemption, this woman does not. The exemption only applies to women whose husbands are dead (or missing) or who are divorced, regardless of whether or not they have children.

According to an article in Tokyo Shimbun, the petitioner was engaged to get married, but during her fifth month of pregnancy her fiancee got cold feet and left her. It was too late to get an abortion, so she quit her job in Tokyo and moved back to her parents’ home in Osaka. Three months after giving birth she started working part-time, and later secured full-time regular employment. Consequently, her income increased, and thus she had to pay more for daycare since the center where her child was enrolled determines fees based on income.

In Japan “income” (shotoku) is considered to be the amount of money on one’s tax return after all exemptions and deductible expenses are subtracted. Because this woman is not a widow or a divorcee, but rather a single mother who has never been married, she doesn’t qualify for the exemption, which is either ¥350,000 or ¥270,000, depending on circumstances. And since she can’t take the exemption, her income is higher, and thus she pays more for daycare.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations agrees with the woman, but actually goes further by saying that the law itself is unfair since it discriminates against certain types of single parents. As the name of the exemption attests, it was not originally enacted for the benefit of single mothers but rather for widows. The law went into effect in 1951 to help thousands of women whose husbands were killed in the war. Since then the law has been revised several times. It was expanded to include divorced women with children, and then divorced women without children (but who weren’t getting alimony).

The law later allowed for single fathers, also, though unlike women, men who are divorced or widowed but do not have children cannot qualify for the exemption. The JFBA says that with all these added revisions to the original law there is “no valid reason” for not extending the exemption to single mothers who have never been married, and insists that the central government revise the law accordingly.

Income taxes are paid at both the national and local levels, so the exemption has two impacts, and several local governments, including the cities of Chiba, Naha and Yokkaichi in Mie Prefecture, “deem” single mothers who have never been married eligible for the exemption (minashi kojo).

Basically, the petitioner in Osaka is trying to get her local government to make the same exception for her, but the JFBA believes the central government should take the initiative. As it stands, though Chiba does allow the exception, only 27 single mothers who have never married currently take advantage of it.

According to Shiho Kawai, herself a single mother and a member of the Chuo Ward assembly in Tokyo, part of the problem is that single mothers who have never married do not readily want to admit their situation because of the social stigma — which is reinforced by laws such as the widow’s exemption. Kawai told Tokyo Shimbun that last fall she proposed that Chuo Ward also deem single mothers who had never been married eligible for the exemption, but the proposal was met with a “dull response.”

Because the exemption can reduce a parent’s taxable income considerably, it affects many financial aspects, not just tax burdens and daycare fees but also health insurance premiums and public housing rents, all of which are calculated according to income. Though the government does provide a dependent child allowance to single mothers regardless of whether or not they were ever married, it has been reduced in recent years, and those who receive welfare are also facing cuts.

Eighty-three percent of single mothers in Japan work, the highest portion among developed countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Their annual pay is also among the lowest in the world. According to welfare ministry statistics, the average income, including the child allowance, for widowed mothers is ¥2.56 million, for divorced mothers ¥1.76 million, and for single mothers who have never married ¥1.6 million.

The reason the latter is so low is that most single mothers who’ve never married are very young, but in any case they don’t get the exemption that other single mothers get. In essence, the government is telling them it would be better if they married the guy who knocked them up, though in the end they can really marry anyone. It doesn’t matter who.

The support group Single Mothers Forum tells of one member who was married and got divorced. Later, she had a child by a man she didn’t marry, but she still qualifies for the widow’s exemption because she was married in the past, even if it wasn’t to the father of her child.

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