Feature

Germany: A growing gap between rich and poor

According to a report published in Germany, the gap between rich and poor has widened sharply over the past decade.

Ghettos have sprung up all over Germany, said Torben Waleczek in Der Spiegel. According to a report published this week by the watchdog group Equality Association, the gap between rich and poor in our nation has widened sharply over the past decade. Worse, the poor are highly concentrated in specific geographic regions. Most of southern Germany is rich, while the northwest is mostly middle to lower-middle class and the east is largely poor. In the Black Forest region in the south, just 7 percent of residents are poor, while in Western Pomerania in the east, more than 27 percent of residents fall below the poverty line. Some states “are stuck in a vicious circle of impoverishment,” and even in the rich states, there are entire towns mired in poverty. “The country is breaking up” into pockets of affluence and pockets of despair.

So much for equality, said Ulrike Winkelmann in Die Tageszeitung. The postwar German constitution calls for “equal living conditions” and “human dignity” for everyone. But as we can now plainly see, “the money is all in the south.” In the east, and in many areas of the northwest, “it looks pathetic.” Of course, the global economic crisis is currently hitting the manufacturing and auto industries in the south hard, so the southern standard of living will probably start dropping—“but that’s not really much consolation.” The one bright spot in such a scenario would be if southerners began to agitate politically for a rise in welfare and unemployment benefits. The series of welfare reforms enacted early this decade, known as Hartz I-IV, reduced benefits so much that the unemployed could barely scrape by. Can it be a coincidence that poverty has risen in the years since welfare reform?

It’s not nearly so dire, said Ulli Kulke in Die Welt. Most people are misinterpreting the statistics. The Equality Association defines someone as poor who makes half the average income. The figures cited in the report are for the “at risk” group; some of them make nearly two-thirds of the national average income. For instance, a couple with two kids that brings in $2,500 a month is considered “at risk.” But the fact is, nobody goes hungry in Germany. Of course it would be lovely if every person could have an above-average income. “But for that we would need not a new social policy but new mathematics.”

It’s true that Germans who live on welfare are hardly destitute, said T. Denkler in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “Hartz IV doesn’t enable a lush lifestyle, but it certainly covers the basics.” Are you poor if you “can afford only secondhand clothes” or if you “must forgo a visit to the theater”? Not necessarily. But the real problem is not that Germans on welfare are poor, it is that they are unemployed. The national unemployment rate is now 8.3 percent, and it’s much higher in the poorer areas. The basic human desire to “provide for one’s family through one’s own labor” is getting harder and harder to fulfill. It is unemployment, not poverty per se, that we need to be worried about.

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