Christmas in a German welfare household | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 24.12.2013
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Christmas in a German welfare household

Christmas without gifts, dinner, or a tree? This is the reality for many poor people in Germany, and charity donations have to step in where the state fails.

Maria storms into the three-room apartment on the second floor, looking for her mother. "Mom, the 200-euro-headphones Eugene wants so much are for sale on the flea market. For just 20 euros," she says, gasping for air after rushing up the stairs of the Bonn high-rise where she lives. "Can you lend me the money? I won't take any pocket money," she said. The 16-year-old's begging look weakens her mother. "But you know it's my last money," says Manuela Ceraceanu. "Now I'm broke."

The 38-year-old mother of five, who lives on the German welfare benefit known as Hartz IV, watches her daughter run down the stairs. Her husband left her several years ago and her small domestic help business went bankrupt because she had to look after her children. She earns 120 euros ($164) a month with a part-time job as a cleaner, and her employer gave her 50 euros for Christmas. "I'd like to share it with my children," she says.

No extras for Christmas

Food cans and other groceries are piled up (Foto: Christian Ignatzi/DW)

The Ceraceanu family receives food from the Bonn food bank

For families like the Ceraceanus, a merry Christmas is not guaranteed. About 1.5 million children live on Hartz IV in Germany. Christoph Butterwege, poverty researcher in Cologne, thinks the government needs to be proactive. "Alms can only supplement a functioning welfare state and not replace it," he told DW. He wants the government to allow special benefits for unemployed people, which was possible until Germany's benefit system was reformed in 2005. Welfare recipients could apply for extra money to replace a broken washing machine. "With the standard rates that have been implemented, families have to save money every month and use it to buy things for their children," said Butterwege.

That might sound fine in theory, he argues, but in practise it is nearly impossible. "We have just about 2,000 euros a month and half of it I have to spend on rent," said Manuela Ceraceanu. She relies on help from the Bonn food bank, and she is not alone. Around 15 percent of the German population lives in poverty, according to Germany's main association of social initiatives. That means a single household has less than 869 euros, while a family with two children under 14 it is less than 1,826 euros a month.

The poverty gap in Germany increases

A woman in a red jacket and a man in a black t-shirt stand next to plastic boxes full with food (Foto: Christian Ignatzi/DW)

Food banks rely on donations

Germany's least poor state is Baden-Württemberg, where just ten percent live in poverty. The Ruhr area, meanwhile, is a troubled region, where one in five are below the poverty benchmark set by the association. In the city-state of Bremen, a quarter of the population is threatened by poverty. "We have ever more American conditions. The gap between rich and poor is widening," said Christoph Butterwege. He blames employers for relying more and more on part-time jobs and service contracts. In addition, wages are barely increasing while living costs are on the rise.

Horst-Dieter Tontarski, who works at the Bonn food bank, also thinks the government is responsible that poverty increases in Germany. "With pensions are increasing by just 0.25 percent, but everything else costs more, it's no wonder that people are becoming poorer and registering themselves at the food bank," he said in an interview with DW. "We have so many new applications we don't know what to do. It is not easy to tell an 80-year-old woman that we can't give her anything."

Donated gifts

The Bonn food bank focuses on groceries, and more than 3,000 people come every week. It also started a Christmas charity to provide the registered food bank customers a merry Christmas. "We receive packages with coffee and chocolate and sometimes, when we're lucky, a bottle of wine, which the poor can't afford," he said. In general the food bank has no toys for children.

Many cities put up "wishing trees" instead, where children from disadvantaged families can hang up their wish lists. Those who can afford deposit to gifts there.

Meanwhile, in Bonn, Ceraceanu decided to play Santa Claus and turned up with four bags at the local saving bank. She received donations of toys, which she handed out to 16 children in her apartment block. "It was great to see the children's joy," she said, "I'm grateful to all the people who help us have a merry Christmas." Beside their money troubles, the Ceraceanu family will sit around a 15-euro Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. Their food is from the food bank and Manuela was even able to buy a few gifts. It won't be a luxurious Christmas, "but the most important thing is that we are together," she said.

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