Capital poverty

Citizens in Berlin enjoy unbeatable living standards and record-low unemployment levels supported by the continent’s strongest economy. Right? Wrong. Germany's booming capital is the capital of welfare and homelessness. Meet those left in the cold.

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Photo by German Palomeque

You thought you lived in the prosperous heart of Europe, where citizens enjoy unbeatable living standards and record-low unemployment levels supported by the continent’s strongest economy. Right? Wrong. The capital of booming Germany is also the capital of Hartz IV welfare and homelessness. Meet the single mothers and pensioners who’ve been left in the cold.

Germany’s economy is thriving, as chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU was keen to point out in the run-up to this month’s parliamentary election. Exports break new records every year, more people are employed than ever before and the global economic crisis apparently hasn’t left a dent. “Merkel’s politics are paying off for the people,” the party’s website reads. But are they, really? Poverty rates show a different reality. An increasing portion of the population is missing out on Germany’s growing prosperity: 15.8 percent, to be precise (up from 14 percent 10 years ago). In Berlin, the rate is 22.4 percent, making it the second poorest German state after Bremen. These people live in what’s coyly referred to as “relative income poverty”, defined as having less than 60 percent of the national median income at their disposal. For a single person in Germany, the threshold is an after-tax income of €942 per month; for a couple without children, it is €1413. Add to that €283 for every child under 14 years of age (or €471 for every 14- to 18-year-old) and you’ll know whether you’re among the one in five Berliners officially considered poor.

Stranded in Hellersdorf

On a hot August afternoon, when most families have left Berlin for summer holidays, Nicole (photo, above) is hanging out with her three-year-old daughter Finja and best friend Melle in Aufwind, a state-funded family centre in Hellersdorf. For them and the other families gathered here, the centre’s yard – complete with a vegetable patch and a bouncy castle for the kids – is a refuge away from the eastern district’s clusters of Plattenbauten and high-rises. The centre also houses an info point that is part of the neighbourhood network for single parents, where social workers offer advice on social services and other resources, assist with job applications and help find daycare for children. The counsellors have all gone on holiday, but the families staying behind have organised a barbecue.

For the two single mothers, aged 31 and 38, a weekend away is a luxury they can’t afford. Nicole would like to take her 10-year-old son Morpheus and little Finja on a trip: “It wouldn’t have to be far – it’s about a change of scenery. Helenesee in Brandenburg would be nice. Maybe I’ll take them to Disneyland Paris or Tenerife one day.” For now, she tries to save money where she can: “I don’t buy clothes and things for myself. And I don’t always buy fresh foods, because the ready-made stuff is cheaper. Last Christmas we got lucky, we found our tree in the street.” Melle doesn’t see herself going on holiday with her sons, 15-year-old Kenny and five-year-old Nico, anytime soon either: “You need to know your priorities. For me it’s healthy food, decent clothing and small extras, like the mobile contract I’m paying for Kenny. My overdraft is at €400 right now, which isn’t too bad, but how on earth would I pay for a family trip?”

Single mothers are one of the demographic groups that haven’t reaped the fruit of Germany’s booming economy. “Berlin is the capital of poor single parents,” says Dr. Martina Krause, head of SHIA, the Berlin self-help initiative for single parents. Over 150,000 of them live here, mostly women. Forty-two percent support themselves and their family on no more than €1500 per month. “Many mothers cannot afford the most basic stuff, and the ones who really need help are systematically disadvantaged by the social welfare system because child support from ex-partners and Kindergeld are deducted from the Hartz IV benefit. It doesn’t make any sense!” says Krause. Kindergeld, which all parents are entitled to, is a monthly allowance of €192 per child (€198 for the third and €223 for the fourth child). Parents can apply for extra benefits to pay for school trips, lunches and supplies, music lessons or sports club memberships – in other words, Teilhabe, a political catchphrase referring to the ability to actively participate in social and cultural life. But as Krause points out: “The problem with those aids from the Bildungs- und Teilhabepaket is that they are an absolute pain to apply for. To prevent fraud, they’ve made it so tedious that most of those entitled to these extra little bits of support do not even try to get them.”

Nicole, a nurse, and Melle, a trained mechanic, are currently among the one-third of single mothers dependent on Hartz IV unemployment benefits. They each receive the basic €409 rate plus €273 to €311 per child (depending on their age) on top of housing benefits (around €650 for an 80sqm flat in Hellersdorf). Their former partners do not pay any child support. “Nobody I know gets child support from their children’s fathers,” Melle says. Krause confirms: “Fifty percent of single parents don’t get any money from their ex-partners, either because they are not willing to pay or they can’t. And a majority shies away from going to court.” In such cases, parents can apply for a staatliche Unterhaltsvorschuss (a state “advance” on child support), but since this and Kindergeld are deducted from Hartz IV, they don’t benefit at all. On top of that comes the exhausting bureaucracy. Melle describes the nightmarish paperwork she faces as an unemployed single mum: “You apply for Kindergeld in one place, then you have to go somewhere else to apply for the child support advance, next you go to the Jobcenter where they deduct it all. And if the Kindergeld gets raised by €1, you have to notify the Jobcenter or they’ll stop paying – or fine you!”

The Jobcenter kept sending me all these letters and acting as if I wasn’t cooperating… They treat you like a two-year-old. That’s the worst.

In her case, it all went down the drain after the father of her oldest son Kenny and her partner of 11 years died, tragically and suddenly, in a motorcycle accident. “Even my son’s half-orphan pension was cut,” Melle says. “We were hoping to put a little money into a savings account for Kenny’s future. He has good grades, wants to do his Abitur, maybe one day he’ll go to university.” Melle’s delivery becomes rushed and emotional as she remembers the seven-year-old boy wanting to die to be with his dad, and how she had to put him in a special institution. Things didn’t get any better after Melle had another son, Nico, and the relationship with his father failed. That’s when Melle fell apart: “I was working flexible hours cleaning in a kindergarten and supplementing my income with Hartz IV. Since my salary was different each month, it was a constant back and forth with the Jobcenter. They kept sending me all these letters and acting as if I wasn’t cooperating. Kenny was gone and my ex was terrorising me; it was all too much. I was going to work and taking care of Nico, but other than that, I couldn’t manage. I was completely numb, couldn’t even open the mail anymore. So I stopped receiving benefits, and we almost got kicked out of our flat.” At this point Melle gathered all her courage and finally sought help with the family centre, applied for Hartz IV again and was able to pay her rent arrears. Diagnosed with post-traumatic depression, she was able to receive treatment and is now hoping she’ll be able to work again soon. “Life on benefits is not a life. You need to have a decently paid job, that’s the only way!”

Now that her daughter is three, Nicole also wants to get back to work. She isn’t expecting to find a job easily, though. “Most employers do not offer family-friendly hours. And when you keep getting rejection letters, you can guess it’s your family situation that’s the problem. When you’re at a job interview and they hear you’re a single mother, and they exchange that knowing look… you understand that you can forget about the job.” And she knows about the single mother’s exhausting double burden of work and children. “It’s non-stop from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed. But what’s worst is the pressure you’re under at all times, from everyone. Kindergartens and schools, for example, will let you know you’re a bad parent if you actually make use of the all-day care they offer.” Melle finds herself similarly struggling with the feeling she’s not being heard or taken seriously. “At the Jobcenter they treat you like a two-year-old. That’s the worst.”

Scoring a job doesn’t always mean a way out of the poverty trap. At 5.3 percent, Berlin has the highest number of people in Germany who need benefits despite working, with more than half of those cases being regular full-time jobs. Andreas Brands, co-director of the soup kitchen run by Franciscan monks at the border of Pankow and Wedding, is concerned: “Of course it is great if the unemployment numbers in Germany are going down and people are finding jobs. But if they work 40 hours a week and cannot live on those wages, something is off.” Brands has also noticed an increase in homeless and older people relying on their services, mirroring recent statistics. As the Beirat für Familienfragen (Council for Family Issues) reports, more and more Berliners are struggling to pay their rent, ultimately leading to more evictions. The estimated number of homeless people in Berlin is 20,000 – another German record.

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For people over the age of 65, the national poverty rate lies at about 15 percent. There are more and more elderly diners at the soup kitchen in Wollankstraße. Photo by German Palomeque

Eating with the elderly

For people over the age of 65, the national poverty rate increased by an alarming 45 percent between 2005 and 2015 and currently lies at about 15 percent. According to Paritätischer Wohlfahrtsverband, the umbrella organisation of German charitites, people had to work six more years in 2016 than in 2000 to avoid dependence on the minimum state pension. The organisation criticises government reforms, including some pre-dating the Merkel era, which prioritise private retirement provisions, pointing out that the number of people able to pay into such schemes is shrinking due to part-time and temporary jobs as well as low wages. Once again it’s single mothers, along with immigrants and the self-employed, who end up with higher risks of poverty in old age.

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Photo by German Palomeque

At Andreas Brands’ soup kitchen on Wollankstraße, there is a mixed crowd at lunchtime. A few older women are sitting on benches at the back of the dining hall. With their bright flowered blouses and neat haircuts, they stand out amongst the mostly male guests. Helga is not sitting with them today, having her soup outside instead. She recognises most of the people here, but knows little about their backgrounds. “Nobody really talks about themselves. Perhaps it’s for the better,” she says. Her own life was mostly spent taking care of her 11 children. She moved to Wedding some 30 years ago, waitressing in a Kneipe once the kids had grown up. They all still live in Berlin. “But,” she adds, “they don’t have much money either. Four of them are on benefits themselves.” When the soup kitchen hands out surplus food, she takes some for her children: “The other week I got seven perfectly good bell peppers! I immediately called my son, and he came to pick them up for his family. He asked if I could bring vegetables like that more regularly, but they don’t always have them here.” Helga’s husband passed away several years ago, leaving her alone in her flat next to the S-Bahn station Wollankstraße. “I didn’t qualify for housing benefits because my rent was too high, by just a few cents.” She smiles wryly, then continues spooning her soup. For people like her, who didn’t work enough to qualify for a proper pension, the minimum provided by the state (€409 per month, same as Hartz IV) falls short of a decent living. “When we still had the deutschmark, it was easier,” Helga sighs. As the euro was introduced, everything became more expensive. For now, she is looking forward to a party the soup kitchen is organising in the coming days, when they’ll finally serve food other than soup or stew. “I’ll probably get a bratwurst!” Another one of those smiles, a cheerful one this time.

Asked whether she will vote in the election, Helga’s eyes widen. “I don’t know… We won’t get anything better anyway, that’s what I think.” A grey-haired man standing nearby chimes in: “All those politicians, they don’t care about us. We cannot rely on them. In this system, all we can do is fend for ourselves.” He says he’s getting by thanks to the soup kitchen, and shrugs: “That’s the reality; no point looking at it through rose-coloured glasses.”

As for Brother Andreas, he makes sure that this reality doesn’t get overlooked. When he gives monastery visitors a tour of the city, he shows them the “glamorous parts” but never forgets to bring them here as well. Many are surprised, he says, especially guests from Africa and Latin America. “Of course poverty looks different here than it does in other parts of the world, but this is not something they expect to see in Germany.”

Berlin is the capital of…

Poverty: 22.4 percent of Berliners live under the poverty line, second only to notoriously skint Bremen. The hotspots? Mitte (24.8 percent) and Neukölln (26.8 percent).

Welfare: 1 in 5 Berliners receive Hartz IV.

Homelessness: 20,000 have nowhere to sleep at night.

Low relative wages: 5.3 percent need benefits despite holding down a job.

Who’s at risk?

The young: One-third of Berlin children live in families dependent on benefits.

The youngish: 31.4 percent of Berliners aged 18-25 are scrambling to afford their WG-Zimmer.

Single mothers: 150,000 Berliners are raising their kids alone. One-third of them live on minimum welfare benefits; 42 percent of them on less than €1500 a month.

The old: Senior poverty has increased by 45 percent nationwide in the last 10 years, and over 10 percent of Berlin elderly have trouble affording their residential care or hospital bills.