A goal of the resurgent Liberal Democratic Party is to reduce public welfare expenditures over the next three years by cutting handouts to the tune of ¥67 billion, or about 10 percent. The targets of these cuts are households who receive more money in welfare than do “lower income” households who don’t, the purpose being to bring the monthly payments made to non-working poor families down to or below the monthly earnings of working poor families. Thus the public assistance payment for a family of four would drop from an average of ¥220,000 to ¥200,000.
As to what this family would have to give up, one category ripe for reduction is “recreation” (goraku), which includes everything from TV sets and PCs to books and magazines. However, according to a 2010 government survey, welfare recipients only spent 6.4 percent of their money on recreation, and due to the LDP’s prime bugbear, deflation, they are spending less in this area all the time, so the keepers of the treasury will have to find other places to cut.
One public figure, however, feels that the goraku category hasn’t been scrutinized enough. The city assembly of Ono, Hyogo Prefecture, passed a law that went into effect April 1 prohibiting people who receive public assistance from the city to use that money for gambling. The law also compels city residents to report any instance of gambling by welfare recipients to the police. Given the timing of the implementation and the nature of the law, some people may wonder if it’s a joke, but Mayor Tsutomu Horai, who wrote it, is quite passionate about the matter, which is why the media have covered it so closely.
Ono currently pays out ¥290 million in welfare annually to 120 households. The population of the city is 50,000. The new law states that anyone who observes a welfare recipient spending “too much money” on gambling has a responsibility to report it to the authorities. The model seems to be local versions of child abuse prevention laws, which state that anyone who believes a child is the victim of violence or neglect must report the abuse to police.
The bill first became publicly known in February, before it was approved, and the city received some 7,000 “opinions” from all over Japan, 70 percent of which were positive. As Horai told the weekly magazine Aera at the time, “Let’s say your friend asks to borrow money because of some trouble, and then later you see him playing pachinko. Naturally, you’re going to be annoyed.”
The problem, as he saw it, was that most people don’t care about public money, and so he wants to change that perception. There is no penalty if a person sees a welfare recipient gambling and does not report it, probably because that would be impossible to prove. Horai certainly understands this, but claims that 90 percent of the city’s residents, including welfare recipients themselves, support the law and so most of his job is already done.
The Hyogo Prefecture Bar Association has come out against the law, saying that its purpose of involving average citizens in the monitoring of welfare recipients’ behavior will result in greater “discrimination of and bias toward” the latter. In fact, Ono’s finances are healthier than most local government’s. Its treasury actually reports a surplus balance of ¥8.5 billion, and the mayor himself has said that the aim of the law is not to reduce the welfare budget. If anything, he hopes the law will also alert people who may qualify for assistance to apply for it.
As it stands, the central government provides three-fourths of a typical handout with the remainder handled by municipalities. About 1.7 percent of the national population receives welfare, while the portion in Ono is only 0.3 percent. However, both statistics are on the rise — the number of recipients in Ono increased by 64 percent over the last five years — and is certainly a reflection of the economic situation in general, but Horai thinks that it has to do with a more relaxed attitude toward government handouts. He told Aera that he first thought of devising the bill when he was at city hall and overheard several people who were waiting on line for their welfare packets. One asked another, “Where are you going to play pachinko later?”
Horai focuses on pachinko, which, legally speaking, isn’t gambling. Players can only earn money by trading the excess balls they win for premiums in the pachinko parlors and then “selling” those premiums at specially established booths outside the premises. Though no one is fooled that this isn’t betting in practice, it’s gambling by legal loophole. What’s more, the off-site payment booths are regulated by the National Police Agency, so why doesn’t pachinko qualify as legal recreation, which is considered acceptable for welfare recipients? And why doesn’t Horai induce citizens to narc on welfare recipients who, say, buy lottery tickets?
Actually, he has an answer to those questions. “People say pachinko is merely entertainment,” he told Aera. “But they don’t understand reality. People who spend too much on pachinko are addicts.” In truth, he wants welfare recipients who play “too much” pachinko to seek medical help, which they can do easily since, as welfare recipients, their medical insurance is free. Horai’s system may not make much sense, but he wants you to know his heart is in the right place.