Sunday, March 6, 2016

German poverty: yes, people do go hungry

One statement you will invariably get to hear when you talk about poverty in Germany is this:

At least, no one goes hungry.

The problem is, that's not true.

Defining and describing poverty, except for the very down and out, is not all that easy. Parks and sidewalks filled with homeless people, large tent cities - those U.S. fixtures don't exist in Germany or are not as visible.

Also, Germany has a social welfare system and tirelessly promotes its values as a capitalist country with strong protections for the poor. Conservative politicians love to warn that generous benefits attract migrants.

But Germany does not have official homeless statistics. You read this right, the fourth largest economy in the world is unable to collect reliable homelessness numbers. Charities say that around 300 000 residents did not have a home in 2012, and that about 24 000 lived rough.

The 2014 estimate is 335 000, and by 2018 an estimated 536 000 would not have their own residence. While increased net migration plays a role, the charity says the combination of high rents, insufficient housing, more poverty and lack of political action drive the numbers.

Germany's conservative quality media (see previous post) tend to go to great lengths to question the validity of the standard measurement of 60% or less than the median after tax income as the poverty threshold. The more restrained arguments range from comparing the absolute figures to those of dirty poor countries to the financial value of all the free services of the Googles and Facebooks of the world. The most extreme one we found so far comes from an economist who used math very nicely: A person on means testes Hartz IV will collect some 200 000 Euros over 20 years of benefits, the man said. Concluding: this is not poverty.
The essential fact, that nothing remains of the monthly payout? Not mentioned.

If you want to play games like the gentlemen did, here is a thought that you give you pause.
The benefit money goes to landlords, telephone companies, utilities, grocery shops, gas stations within one month of the transfer to the claimant. The claimant retains nothing, well maybe a handful of Euros one month, only to spend it the next.

To the blogster, this looks more like a business subsidy which has the added benefit of keeping people alive.

Drawing "unearned" basic Hartz IV benefits, i.e. anything outside of unemployment insurance benefits, in Germany has never been the fun experience awfully divisive tabloid BILD or many "Christian conservatives" made it out to be.

For decades, there has been a social stigma to living on benefits in Germany. Germans tend to hide the fact they are poor.

Calling the afternoon shows on television "Hartz IV TV" or the cheap discount shop clothes Hartz IV fashion are the least of the taunts.

Lazy moochers is more like it, social parasites is another good one.

The government jobcenters run the Hartz IV program under the motto "Fördern und Fordern". A cute alliteration cooked up by brilliant PR folks, the first part is "assist", the second can be translated as "assert" for an enjoyable English "Assist and assert".

And it is the "assert" part that hurts. You refuse to sign a "reintegration agreement": benefits cut.
You miss an appointment without a doctor's slip: cut.
You refuse to accept a 1 Euro per hour job: cut.
Your apartment exceeds the 50 sqm allowed: move at your own expense or pay the rent for everything above the 50 sqm out of the benefits.
You reach age 62 as a HARTZ IV receiver: either stop claiming benefits, or the government will automatically retire you, making you permanently lose some 14% of your pension. Yes, the German government can retire any Hartz IV recipient like an old car.
Your benefits are delayed and you have 0 Euros on a Friday at noon: you may go hungry.

Food insecurity is not well documented in Germany. In general, you will find something generic, like on this site, where they say it is not about going hungry but about balanced and healthy nourishment. Even food bank network Die Tafel follows this line.

When you do find figures like this 2011 article saying that 500 000 children in Germany are affected by hunger, they tend to point at the low Hartz IV benefits but still put some blame on parents who do not handle money well.

This article in Der Spiegel from 2006 reports that every 6th child in Germany, 2.5. million in all, suffer from hunger. At the same time, the fairly recent introduction of school meals does not reach the most needy because the meals are not free, so parents withdraw their kids from the program.

A friend recently had seen her benefits delayed and got a food voucher at the jobcenter. The voucher is only a loan, they'll grab the money back once benefits clear.

Yet, at the grocery store, they make you feel like a beggar, she said. Unless the cashier knows the system, they think you got yourself a freebie.

She only went hungry for a day until she made it to the jobcenter.

[Update 3/13/2016] This article in Der Spiegel quotes the chief of German economics institute DIW as saying in an upcoming book: The balanced "socially responsible market economy" (Germany's brand of "well regulated capitalism") is gone and has made Germany into one of the most unequal countries among the world's leading economies.

[Update 4/23/2016] In 2014, just under 9 000 Germans saw their basic HARTZ IV benefits cut completely to 0 Euros. Since eligibility for the benefits mandates you have next to no money, it is inconceivable that none of these people go hungry. The stop gap measure of food vouchers to prevent people from starving is capped at just above 200 Euros per month.
Around 1 million sanctions are handed out by the social services agencies each year. And if you ask a single mother how she feeds a teenage boy, the answer will be: by eating less myself.
Since Germany does not keep homeless statistics and no one knows how many illegals live in the country without access to services, hunger is real.

[Update 5/4/2016] Single parents (41% of all single parents receive Hartz IV, an outrageous number) will be hit by a rule change. If a child spends part of the time with the other parent under a joint custody agreement, the benefits for the child will be prorated per day. In other words, the benefits will be reduced for the time the child spends at the other parent.

[Update 8/22/2016] A new federal civil defense initiative made headlines with the call of the government that every household stock about two weeks worth of food, water and supplies for emergencies. It is bad enough that terrorism fear is used as one of the arguments for a renewed focus on civil defense.

What is even nicer, though, is the blissful ignorance of the situation of many of the most marginalized recipients of the SSI like basic means tested Hartz IV social benefits scheme.

Stocking up to two weeks worth of food and supplies is actually a big deal for the poorest of the poor, who get extra food at the charity "Die Tafel" (the table) to make ends meet.

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