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Berlin mayor calls for basic income — or does he?

David Martin
March 20, 2018

Berlin Mayor Michael Müller wants Germany to introduce what he terms a solidarity-based basic income. While some say his label isn't accurate, the plan throws critical light on the country's welfare program, Hartz IV.

A man walks through doors at the work agency
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Berlin Mayor Michael Müller this week called for Germany's welfare and unemployment program, commonly referred to as Hartz IV, to be scrapped in favor of a supposed new basic income model.

Müller's proposal, which he dubs "basic income based on solidarity," would see those out of work be offered municipal or social service jobs for a salary of around €1,500 ($1,850) per month before tax. Additional funds for child support would come on top of this. The program would be voluntary, and those who decline could continue to receive the far lower benefits offered by Hartz IV, currently set at €416 per month.

Read more: German issues in a nutshell: Hartz IV

"The state shows solidarity because it supports people and gives them work that they need," Müller told the Berliner Morgenpost. "And conversely, they contribute their labor to areas that benefit our community."

Bitter Legacy - The Social Democrats and the Hartz Reforms

As straightforward as the label for his plan sounds, it quickly becomes apparent that Müller is appealing for something altogether different than basic income as it is traditionally defined, namely as an unconditional cash payment without a means test or work requirement. 

However, Müller's appeal opens up some valid questions about Germany's welfare system and reflects the tangible desire shared by many in his Social Democratic Party (SPD) to do away with the Hartz IV program, which the party introduced some 15 years when it held the reins of the federal government.

Read more: What's better: An unconditional basic income or a job guarantee?

Why label it basic income?

The debate has raged as to why Müller chose to describe his proposal as a basic income program, with some accusing the Berlin mayor of being intentionally misleading.

Prof. Dr. Christoph Butterwegge
Poverty expert Dr. Christoph ButterweggeImage: Wolfgang Schmidt

Cologne-based poverty researcher Christoph Butterwegge told DW the program shouldn't even be described as solidarity because of all the conditions seemingly attached to it.

"He's not going to win support for this idea because it quickly becomes clear that it's misleading," Butterwegge said. "Müller is using the resonance surrounding the idea of a universal basic income, which has widely been advocated as a solution to the increasing digitalization and automatization of the workplace, and stuck this label on top something that's completely different."

Remarketing an old idea

Others criticize the Berlin mayor for trying to present his proposal as something innovative when, in fact, the general concept of dedicating welfare funds towards creating municipal or social service jobs has been around for years.

Ronald Blaschke, a spokesman for the organization Basic Income Network, said the Berlin mayor was trying to "remarket old wine in new bottles" in a German-language post on the group's website.

As Blaschke points out, even the SPD itself launched initiatives that provided subsidized public work ("öffentlich geförderte Beschäftigung") to the long-term unemployed between 2002 and 2011, the years when the party ran the Berlin state government jointly with the Left Party. "It is curious because Müller was a member of the Berlin House of Representatives when this was going on, so I get the impression he doesn't really know what he's talking about," Blaschke told DW.

Germany's Left Party also put forward proposals on a federal level in 2015 to introduce more subsidized public jobs. The proposal failed the gather the necessary votes, with the SPD voting against it. 

Germany's poor pensioners

Splitting from Hartz IV

Things have changed within the SPD's ranks since then, however, and Müller's plans for Berlin could quickly gain ground on a federal level. The fact that Müller currently serves as the president of the Bundesrat, the upper chamber of the German parliament, in addition to being Berlin's mayor means his political voice is heard at the federal level.

The SPD's poor showing in September's national election, when it scraped out a historic low of just over 20 percent of the vote, has been attributed by many to the party leadership's ongoing support of Hartz IV. Critics view the program as punitive and unaligned with the party's social democratic principles.

In addition, statistics show that the number of unemployed receiving Hartz IV money has remained virtually steady since 2012, at between 4.4 and 4.3 million people per year. That has led many within the SPD to decry the program for having reached its limits.

Infografik Hartz IV Empfänger 2010-2018 ENG

Müller's plan might not be a move towards basic income, but it represents a marked shift away by yet another prominent SPD politician from what some consider to be a failing welfare system.

The SPD's Hubertus Heil was a vocal critic of Hartz IV before he was appointed Germany's new labor and social affairs minister. Simone Lange, the Social Democratic mayor of the northern German town of Flensburg, who is set to challenge Andrea Nahles to head the SPD, has also said she wants to completely reform German social policy — and has even entertained the idea of introducing a true basic income program.

Read more: Child poverty still rising in Germany, official report shows

Any chance of change?

"The SPD knows that it has to distance itself from its past with the Agenda 2010 [the party's market reform agenda] and Hartz IV. This is what a large part of the debate over whether to go into coalition the conservatives was all about," Blaschke said.

While the Social Democrats successfully pushed during coalition talks to free up funds for jobs in social services, Germany's welfare structure looks like it will keep its current form while the SPD serves as the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative-led government

"If the SPD had remained in opposition they could have said, 'Right, let's stand for some real social democratic principals and push to get rid of this welfare system.' But now that they are in bed with the conservatives, it seems like this stands little chance."

Müller's calls for his so-called solidarity-based basic income may not translate into new policy, but it has invigorated debate around the future of Germany's welfare system within the SPD, who see themselves as the guarantors of a strong welfare state. Germany's Social Democrats have been marred by internal division since late last year, when the party decided it was willing to go into government with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives. Party opposition to Hartz IV could become the next major point of conflict.