It’s not uncommon to stumble upon young people begging at subway stations in Berlin. Nor is it difficult to see that the city has a high rate of homeless people – just a visit to the central train station Bahnhof Zoo is enough.
But despite the common knowledge that Berlin counts among the poorer cities in Germany, the first comprehensive study on Berlin’s social fabric has sent shock waves through the capital by shedding light on the true extent of the poverty in the city.
On Wednesday, the Social Senator of the city, Heidi Knake-Werner of the former Communist party (PDS) announced the sobering results of the study "Poverty and Social Inequality in Berlin".
Poverty defined by level of income
The study adopts the definition of poverty laid down by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – those living on less than half the average income of a region are considered "poor".
Following that definition, it concludes that every eighth Berliner is affected by "relative poverty" and lives on less than half of the average monthly income of 1,092 euros ($1,093.49) for Berlin – that means a single person living on 546 euros a month is considered "poor".
About 435,000 people live in poverty in Berlin – that makes for 12.8 percent of the city’s population of about 3.5 million.
Families with several children, single parents and residents without a school diploma or education and foreigners in Berlin are hit the hardest.
Particularly striking is the news that almost every fourth child in Berlin (23.6 percent) is poor. Poor children in the city’s west make for 28 percent, substantially higher than the 16.4 percent of poor children in eastern Berlin.
The study also shows that the number of people living on welfare in Berlin make for 7.3 percent of the city's population, much higher than the national rate of 3.5 percent.
Better educational and family policies needed
Knake-Werner, speaking at a press conference after releasing the maze of statistics and figures, blamed the high levels of poverty on rising unemployment in the city, growing numbers of children and poor educational standards.
"The city needs better educational and family policies that would allow careers and bringing up children to go hand in hand, for instance more part-time jobs and all-day care for children".
She warned against combating the problem with more state hand-outs. "Financial support from the state can only help temporarily. And those who accept social welfare, don’t automatically fall below the poverty line", she said.
The study has also uncovered deep economic differences between different districts of the city.
Specifically it shows that in the former communist eastern parts of the city, just 10.6 percent people live below the poverty line as opposed to 14.2 percent in the west.
Even the differences in income aren’t as pronounced in the east as they are in the west. One reason, according to Knake-Werner, is the much higher percentage of foreigners living in the western parts of the city.
She spoke in favour of developing social infrastructure in the worst-affected city districts to help people with low incomes.
Berlin in the throes of financial crisis
The study couldn’t have come for a worse time for Berlin.
The city is reeling under a mountain of debts estimated at around 40 billion euro, which caused the collapse of the Conservative-Social Democrat government last year .
It has also been plagued by a string of bank scandals, most notably losses incurred by the bank "Bankgesellschaft Berlin", in which the government has a 57 percent stake.
The city authorities have responded with a package of drastic cuts, which have already led to the closure of a wave of cultural treasures, schools, sport stadiums and kindergartens - just the kind of social infrastructure that Knake-Werner finds so crucial for fighting poverty in the first place.