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A man begs for change on the street
Germany's definition of poverty differs from other countries'Image: AP

Poor in Germany

June 25, 2010

The EU has declared 2010 the European Year for Combating Poverty and Exclusion, yet recent studies suggest that Germany's poor and middle class are getting poorer.


A thick red line in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate marks a symbolic barrier where there once stood a 12-foot wall of reinforced concrete. Behind the painted line, protesters wear tee-shirts displaying the words "I am indebted and am poor," "I have no education and am poor" or "I'm a single parent and am poor."

The red line here represents the poverty line, under which one in seven Germans lives - approximately 15 percent. In Europe the poverty rate comprises 17 percent of the population, or some 84 million people.

Surveys show that the situation has worsened in recent years. A recently-published European Union study states that three quarters of EU citizens perceive growing poverty in their home countries. Even in Germany, 57 percent surveyed said they felt poverty was increasing around them.

According to another recent study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), from 2000 to 2009, poverty in Germany increased from 18 to nearly 22 percent.

Yet with Germany boasting Europe's strongest economy and one of the highest living standards in the world, the German definition of poverty is not restricted to starvation and homelessness.

Living in dignity with little money

Demonstraters gather behind a red line at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate
Millions in Germany live below the poverty lineImage: picture-alliance/dpa

That was the conclusion of Germany's Federal Constitutional Court earlier this year, when it declared the then-standard unemployment benefit rates unlawful.

The move was a groundbreaking decision, according to Malu Dreyer, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

"The Federal Constitutional Court in this case not only codified the basic right to a minimum subsistence level fit for human beings, but also made clear that a modicum of participation in social, cultural and political life must also be part of that."

Nearly 7 million people live off state aid in Germany, and about 2.5 million of them are minors, according to the charity organization Caritas. Poverty among children in Germany has nearly doubled since 2004, which could mean a new wave of poverty in future years, as poor children have a much lower chance at getting a good education than their wealthier peers and and most often remain poor into adulthood.

Dreyer is careful to speak of Germany's needy not as charity cases, but as citizens who have a right to participate in society. "By the same token the government has the obligation to safeguard them," she said

Yet, Germany may not be able to afford the kind of social responsibility to which its residents have grown accustomed. Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government has called for 80 billion euros in austerity measures over the next four years, which DIW economist Jan Goebel fears will only exacerbate poverty. So far all the suggested cuts, he said, would "only hit people of lower income levels."

Gesine Schwan giving a speech
Schwan says democracy must create economic equalityImage: AP

Greater equality to fight poverty

Political scientist and former presidential candidate Gesine Schwan sees poverty as the manifestation of great injustice. "It suggests that we must recall the original cry for justness, namely the basic equality of humankind in dignity, rights and obligations," said Schwan.

"Through the democratic process, we must pursue concrete arrangements promoting equality when it comes to pensions, taxes, access to jobs and education," she added.

Schwan believes that the creation of a more just society must involve closing the gap between rich and poor – a goal which she said she does not see the current federal government working toward. Schwan wants to see a stronger stance from the government to lead the public consciousness, in which there is no concensus on fighting poverty.

"Those who are better-off hold the main responsibility," she said. "A callous claim that the market must prevail unobstructed is just as much an affront to justice as a claim of ownership over the costs of unemployment or of coming generations."

Decent work for decent pay

Poverty even affects the middle-class in Germany, which still has no minimum wage. Since the early 1970s, earned income rates have sunk relative to national income. The number of low-income jobs has also grown - and with it the number of people who cannot live off their earnings.

Social Democrat Malu Dreyer explained that this phenomenon can have drastic consequences on society.

A boy stands on the balcony of an apartment tower, wearing a blue baseball cap
Children who grow up in poverty usually remain thereImage: dpa

Having a minimum wage and giving giving welfare aid commensurate with the decision of the Federal Constitutional Court, she said, are essential to ending poverty in Germany.

Though there is no apparent end to poverty in sight, experts agree that there won't be social unrest any time soon in Germany. Instead of fighting for greater equality, it's believed that poor people in Germany more often focus their discontent inward, triggering illness and affective disorders. For that reason, it is not rare for children growing up in poverty to suffer depression.

Author: Sabine Kinkartz (David Levitz)
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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