Photo/IllutrationA form produced by a local government in the Tokai region for a single-parent household seeking to receive a child-care allowance. The checklist includes a pledge that a single mother will “consult city employees promptly if she becomes pregnant.” (Misako Yamauchi)

"I am not currently visiting the house of someone of the opposite sex on a regular basis."

This is one of the items on a checklist a single mother in the Tokai region was required to fill out at the local city hall in August to continue receiving a child-care allowance.

The checklist may be well-intentioned, but for many mothers like her, it's all a bit too personal.

The 41-year-old woman started receiving the allowance six years ago after she got divorced, and says she becomes despondent as renewal time approaches each year.

"Do they really have to ask such personal questions?" she said. "It feels like I'm being punished for becoming a single mother."

The woman lives at her parents' home while juggling a day job as a systems engineer and working at a restaurant two nights a week to raise her two junior high school-age sons.

The list also includes an entry whereby she agrees to "consult city employees promptly if she becomes pregnant."

The woman said that until several years ago, staff members themselves asked her whether she was pregnant.

A child-care allowance is provided to help single-parent households realize a stable livelihood, with the amount varying depending on the number of children and household income.

For example, individuals who earn 3.65 million yen ($34,760) or more in annual income are not eligible to receive the allowance.

A total of 973,188 households received such support as of the end of fiscal 2017, according to government statistics.

In the current fiscal year, a parent with a child is entitled to a full amount of 42,910 yen per month in child allowance if their annual income is within 1.6 million yen.

In general, applicants must meet local officials in person to complete procedures to receive or renew a child-care allowance.

While single parents who are common-law married are ineligible, there are no clear-cut government criteria to determine what constitutes such a marriage.

A 1980 welfare ministry notice stipulated that people who are de facto married are limited, in principle, to those who live together.

However, those who regularly visit a partner and receive financial support from them are also considered de facto married, according to the ministry.

Yet the ministry does not specify how many visits constitute "regularly" and the amount of financial support given.

As a result, each local government determines at its discretion if a prospective recipient of child-care allowance is not in a common-law marriage, and therefore eligible to receive public assistance.

In Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, city officials weed out potentially unqualified women by asking them to fill out a form with detailed questions such as whether they live with a partner, whether they receive support from a person living separately, and whether they are pregnant.

A city official who handles the child-care allowance said, "Pregnancy alone does not disqualify a person for an allowance."

However, the official added that it may affect the final decision on eligibility.

The Shibukawa city government in Gunma Prefecture asks those who apply if their partner visits their home on a regular basis and further details in writing, such as how often they eat together and stay overnight with each other per week.

Hamamatsu and Shibukawa officials defended the questions, saying they are intended to prevent unqualified recipients from abusing the public support system.

However, the Akashi city government in Hyogo Prefecture manages to avoid such questions, by making their decision after confirming whether recipients of a child-care allowance receive money from other individuals and are living with a partner.

The Matsudo municipal government in Chiba Prefecture takes a similar approach.

"There are no restrictions when it comes to whether an applicant is going out with somebody," a city official overseeing the child-care program said. "We can judge whether applicants are qualified based on their livelihood."

Some local governments open investigations when they are tipped off by residents about someone who may be receiving the allowance illicitly.

Last year, a Takamatsu city government employee in Kagawa Prefecture took pictures of clothes in a closet of a single-mother family with his personal mobile phone when visiting her home at night, sparking controversy.

The employee, who said his intention was to confirm whether the clothes belonged to the woman's former husband, insisted that he "took pictures instead of taking notes after obtaining consent (from the woman)."

The woman developed depression in the wake of the incident and took a leave of absence from work.

When the city government's handling of the case was questioned at the municipal assembly in July, municipal authorities maintained that it was "appropriate."

The city government said it receives about 20 reports a month raising doubts about whether a recipient is eligible to receive a child-care allowance.

A Takamatsu official called for the central government to spell out detailed criteria for recipients to be qualified.

"We are limited in terms of what we can do to sort out unqualified recipients," the official said, citing the difficulty of conducting an accurate income assessment and a lack of law enforcement authority.

Yuki Senda, a sociology professor at Tokyo’s Musashi University who is well-versed in the issue, questioned the effectiveness of municipal employees asking prying questions with the aim of uncovering illicit recipients.

“Many single parents feel that the procedure is tantamount to harassment,” she said.

(This article was written by Misako Yamauchi and Maiko Ito.)