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Germany

Opposition unleashes broadside at Hartz IV benefit increase

After eight months of agonizing, the reform of Germany's unemployment benefit known as Hartz IV has boiled down to an increase of five euros a month. The Social Democratic Party has seized the chance to express outrage.

A rose in front of an SPD logo

The SPD is trying to make a new start

When Germany's constitutional court ruled in February that the regulations on Germany's unemployment benefit system needed to be reformed, most assumed this would mean the regular allowance would be increased.

The system, known colloquially as Hartz IV, has been a source of tension in Germany ever since its introduction five years ago, and this year's court ruling seemed to confirm critics' opinions that it did not provide an adequate living.

Ursula von der Leyen

The labor minister was at pains to explain the details of the reform

But after extensive agonizing over an already strapped budget, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has settled on an increase of five euros ($6.70) - from 359 euros a month to 364 euros. Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen defended the meager increase on the grounds that the court's ruling had only specified that the calculations needed to be made more transparently.

Re-interpreting the court ruling

"The constitutional court said firstly that statistical model - the income and consumption data on which our calculations are made - is fine, the minister said at a press conference on Monday.

"Secondly, the court said that the standard rates are not too low, but you have to calculate them cleanly, transparently, and on an empirical basis."

The opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) was quick to express its outrage. The center-left party is currently in the midst of a key conference in Berlin. Following last year's disastrous election for the SPD, and the distinctly depressing opinion poll ratings since then, it is casting about for chances to present a revitalized agenda.

Andrea Nahles

Nahles ridiculed the five-euro increase in Hartz IV

Thus the SPD seized on Monday's timely opportunity to draw a clear line between itself and Merkel's government. The SPD's general secretary, Andrea Nahles, was particularly unforgiving.

"Five euros is a joke, to be honest," she said at the party conference. "You can only arrive at that figure if you have massively manipulated the requirements outlined by the constitutional court."

Hypocrisy?

The government, led by Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has been quick to point out that this criticism is odd, given that the SPD introduced the current benefit system under then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in 2005.

"The SPD and Green Party's criticism of the moderate increase in the Hartz IV allowance is dishonest," said Hermann Groehe, the CDU's general secretary. "Let's not forget that the current rates are a SPD - Green Party decision, and the SPD always defended them as sufficient as long as they were in government."

But the uproar that the minimal benefit increase has sparked is unlikely to go away, and is equally unlikely to win the government many new voters.

And an extra five euros a month doesn't seem like a sum that stands to significantly improve the lot of the five million people currently living on the Hartz IV benefit. But the government's new 620-million-euro education package, announced simultaneously, does aim to address a perhaps more pressing concern - the well-being of the children of Germany's unemployed.

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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