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Two million poor children in wealthy Germany

Vera Kern / groSeptember 12, 2016

Child poverty has grown even as Germany has become richer, according to a study. Advocates blame the government's family policy. How can Germany ensure sustainable upbringings for its 2 million excluded children?

Deutschland Symbolbild Kinderarmut
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

Germany does not lack the bare necessities. Food, shelter, winter clothing, medication and schooling are generally available. Even poor kids from Bavaria or Berlin enjoy more privilege than the vast majority of the world's more than 2 billion children.

Nonetheless, a recent study published by the Bertelsmann Foundation reveals that the number of children in poverty is growing in Germany. The study states that almost 2 million German children live in families who have received welfare for at least five years. Children whose parents depend on basic state support, known as Hartz IV, are also considered to be poor. The researchers used data taken from the Federal Employment Agency and a long-term study on the consequences of poverty for children and youths.

Frequently lacking access to fresh produce, poor children are often insufficiently nourished and at risk of illness. The study also found that children from poor homes are often socially isolated. Their families cannot afford school excursions, sports activities or music lessons. Poor children often do not have their own bedrooms and, consequently, no place to retreat or do their homework.

All of this leads to educational disadvantages. "Their entire educational background encompasses more problems than children whose families have secure incomes," said Annette Stein, who works on family policy at the Bertelsmann Foundation.

This does not necessarily mean that children born into poverty will always be poor. Low-income families tend to support their children as much as they can. Yet the poverty may be reinforced. "The longer children live in poverty, the higher the risk of being influenced negatively by their lot in life," Stein said. Students from Hartz-IV homes remain the exception at universities.

The study also found that children raised by single parents and children with two or more siblings are more often poor.

Frankfurt am Main
Activists have long tried to draw attention to inequality in the world's fifth-richest countryImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Schmidt

'Nothing is working'

Where children grow up seems to play a role. Generally speaking, the risk of poverty is much lower in wealthy southern Germany than economically weaker areas like North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state. One in five children in eastern Germany are poor. In Berlin, every third child grows up poor. Children who grow up in Bavaria or Baden-Württenburg definitely have more auspicious beginnings, as only one in 10 children in these states are affected by poverty.

Stein holds the government responsible. There has been much discussion of family policy and some programs have been implemented to address poverty, Stein said, "but it is very obvious that nothing is working." The main problem is how welfare rates are calculated. Right now, the rates that are applied to adults are also used for children. "But children are not small adults," Stein said, adding that financial support should be tailored to the children's needs and that children should have access to cultural and educational institutions: Schooling alone is not enough. "We need a policy that begins at the child," she said.

Child poverty is not a new development for Germany. The Bertelsmann study makes it clear that all government measures to combat child poverty have proved to be ineffective. A recent report published by various social institutions in Germany reached the same conclusion. The studies make the case for a "need-oriented child allowance that ensures a decent life."

Money is not the basic requirement for a happy childhood. Yet the sum of what is forfeited because of poverty - healthy food, sports activities, music activities, tutoring, a year abroad or family vacation - makes a difference.

Last week, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble proposed a 2-euro ($2.25) monthly raise in the child benefit per child. Thomas Krüger, the president of the child welfare organization Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk, criticized the raise, saying it would make no difference.