Lone Mothers and Welfare-to-Work Policies in Japan and the United States: Towards an Alternative Perspective

By Ezawa, Aya; Fujiwara, Chisa | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Lone Mothers and Welfare-to-Work Policies in Japan and the United States: Towards an Alternative Perspective


Ezawa, Aya, Fujiwara, Chisa, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


This paper compares recent efforts to reduce lone mothers' reliance on cash assistance and support their increased participation in the workforce and economic independence in Japan and the United States. Similar to reforms introduced in the U.S. in 1996, lone mother policies in Japan have been subject to a series of cuts leading to the introduction of time limits and work-related programs in 2002. In this paper, we examine the character of recent welfare reforms in both countries and their implications for lone mothers' welfare and economic independence. Based on Japan's experience and recent lessons from the U.S., we show the limitations of a focus on caseload reduction and work participation rates, and instead highlight the importance of addressing lone mothers' low wages in form of policies for the working poor.

Keywords: Japan, single mothers, employment, welfare reform, TANF

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Welfare support for lone mother families has become a major concern of policy makers in most advanced industrialized countries. Due to a significant increase in the number of divorced and never-married mothers, as well as their frequent reliance on public support, welfare expenditure on lone mothers has been subject to controversy and reform in a number of countries. Reforms introduced in the United States in 1996 have responded to criticisms of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with policies which emphasize independence through work rather than 'dependence on welfare,' dramatically reducing reliance on cash assistance. Similarly, in Japan, the major source of support for divorced and never-married mothers, the dependent children's allowance (jido fuyo teate), has recently been subject to restructuring. Responding to an increasing demand, policy makers have restricted its conditions of eligibility and significantly reduced the amount of support in a series of cuts in the 1980s and 1990s. Policy revisions in 2002, moreover, have introduced a five year time limit and an increased emphasis on income from work. Similar to welfare-to-work policies in the U.S., also in Japan, new programs and services for lone mothers are now aiming to reinforce their self-sufficiency through work (Fujiwara, 2003).

In this paper, we closely examine recent reforms of lone mother policies in Japan and the United States and assess their implications for lone mothers' welfare and independence. How can welfare-to-work policies enable lone mothers to become economically self-sufficient and independent from state support? Based on an analysis of lone mother policies and work patterns in Japan and the United States, we illuminate the challenges of facilitating a shift from 'welfare to work' as anticipated by welfare reform. We show that even though lone mothers in Japan have the highest workforce participation rate among advanced industrialized nations, engagement in paid work in itself does not necessarily move them out of poverty or beyond public support. Implementing welfare-to-work policies, therefore, not only involves moving lone mothers into the workforce but ensuring a living wage. In comparing the Japanese case with recent trends in post-reform United States, our paper explores key issues which need to be taken into consideration in facilitating lone mothers' welfare and independence after reform.

Welfare-to-work policies, by aiming for lone mothers' economic independence from the state through wage work, address issues that have long been at the center of discussions of the gendered character of welfare regimes. In general, lone mothers have been seen as a 'litmus test,' which illuminates the gendered character of a welfare state regime (Hobson, 1994; Kilkey & Bradshaw, 1999; Lewis, 1997). As comparative research has shown, lone mothers' living conditions vary considerably across welfare regimes. Whereas lone mothers tend to receive protection as mothers in some welfare regimes, they are primarily treated as workers in others (Duncan & Edwards, 1997). …

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