Thursday, January 21, 2016

A small town German mayor chats about the refugee crisis

A few days ago, the blogster had the opportunity to sit down for a cup of coffee with the mayor of a typical small German town of some 5 000 residents, and located within standard commuting distance from the nearest urban center.

The mayor is a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Germany's conservative biggest party, the party German Chancellor Merkel belongs to. In his early fifties, college educated, he is old enough to have some perspective on changes in modern Germany and young enough to have a stake in the upcoming decades.

These facts represent "middle Germany" as ideally as it is likely to get, the blogster figured. So, we chatted about various topics but mainly about the refugee crisis.

Like the overwhelming majority of his fellow countrymen, the mayor has empathy for people fleeing war and destruction, and there was no indication throughout the informal interview that a hard maximum limit of the number of people allowed into the country was even on his mind.

His concerns were practical in nature. What do we do with so many young people, how can we get them to learn German, how can we reasonably house and feed them if the labor market cannot absorb them fast enough, if the current record tax revenue slows down, and so on.

He went: Look, we don't offer the refugees nearly enough opportunities to use the time they now have to learn German and to get settled. We don't put them in full time German classes, as we really should. It doesn't help much if a nice German lady stops by one evening a week and tries to teach them.

He has a good point. The "integration courses", which are really language classes with a few field trips are booked solid, they are at best part time, there are not enough qualified teachers, and those teachers are often paid the same a barber makes. The German government has outsourced these teaching jobs to charities in order to get around its own standards for school teachers.

He sounded sad, as he continued: So, without basic German, how can we expect to educate and train all those who need more skills to get a job?

Reminded by the blogster that the German education system is still geared towards children who are born here, go through the entrenched system, then go through an often very extensive and potentially overly demanding training, he got the point. Yes, I know the US has more flexibility, lower bars for entry jobs, and I think that's helpful. If we simply put large numbers of newcomers on HARTZ IV basic social security, they'll be stick, and we won't be able to pay forever.

He went on to describe the financial situation in his area. The town is doing great, he said. We just received an additional one million Euros, and I have no idea where that money comes from, he chuckled. We don't spend money on the latest wave of refugees, the county takes care of that. So, we are using the extra cash to fix up some buildings, pay off some debt and put the rest on the side for a rainy day.

At the county level, the math works like this: they receive 800 Euros per refugee per month. For a family of six, that's 4 800 Euros for housing, food, a small cash payout, and health care. If health care expenses are low, if that family of six is in good shape, that's plenty of money. It's the health care expenses that can quickly turn this into a steep loss.

And as far as housing goes, each county does its own thing, there is absolute;y no standard. My county pays per apartment or per house, and I have actually rented out the old house where my mother lived to refugees. I get 300 Euros a month without heating and utilities, and I am not making money on this. The heating system doesn't work too well, fixing that will cost at least 1 200 Euros.

One county over, they calculate the rent per person. Granted, rents are somewhat higher there, but landlords rake it in. That same family of six brings in 1 800 in rent each month.

Asked whether he can confirm reports that refugees looked at an assigned residence and refuse to take it, he shrugs: Yes, it has happened, but what can you say. It is about expectations, in a world where everybody has a smart phone, what should people think when they get a photo of a brand new apartment from someone?
This is obviously not of significance to the mayor, isolated incidents. And rightly so, the blogster would add.

The conversation then moves on to developments in Germany over the past two decades. Another post will deal with this.

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