Old-Age Poverty in Germany: 'Being Poor Also Makes You Lonely'

Old-age poverty is an increasingly worrisome problem in Germany. In a SPIEGEL interview, 74-year-old Renate Apel discusses how, even after working and paying into her pension for some 40 years, her life has become one of deprivation and want.

Renate Apel, 74, gets food from a food bank in Hamburg. Her monthly income is €637. Zoom
Jörg Müller / Agentur Focus

Renate Apel, 74, gets food from a food bank in Hamburg. Her monthly income is €637.

As Germany's population ages, its birth rate declines and a smaller proportion of its citizens are paying into the state retirement fund, meager pensions for elderly citizens are becoming an increasingly troubling issue.

German Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Ursula von der Leyen recently published alarming figures on the future level of German pensions that have sparked widespread concern over the looming danger of old-age poverty.

Likewise, figures from the German government's new report on provisions for old age, to be published in November, show that of the roughly 25 million employees in the country between the ages of 25 and 65 who make social security contributions, more than 4.2 million earn a gross monthly salary of less than €1,500. This only entitles these individuals to the legally guaranteed basic social security. The tax-funded payment was introduced in 2003 as a supplement to help elderly people who have low pensions and opt not to apply for welfare assistance eke out a subsistence-level existence.

German parties across the political spectrum are now scrambling to develop a new pension concept, but they have yet to make much headway. Meanwhile, pensioners like Renate Apel, 74, are struggling to make ends meet. For four years, Apel has been coming every Tuesday to a food bank run by the Hamburger Tafel ("Hamburg Table"), a charity organization that distributes surplus food and groceries from supermarkets, restaurants and other businesses to the poor.


Spiegel: Ms. Apel, Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen recently issued a warning about old-age poverty in Germany. According to her ministry's estimates, someone with a gross income of €2500 ($3,200) who has worked full-time for 35 years will have to make ends meet with only €688 after 2030. You receive somewhat less than that now. How long did you work to earn your pension?

Apel: Forty years, at a grill stand in Bergedorf (the largest of Hamburg's seven boroughs) and in the British American Tobacco factory. I wasn't well-off, but it was enough to live on. Today, it's different. I get a €468 monthly pension payment plus €169 in basic social security, which makes €637 all together.

Spiegel: What do you do without?

Apel: I can't afford new clothes. What I'm wearing now I bought in a thrift store where everything costs between 50 cents and €1. But I can't deal with used shoes; they have to be new. I paid €10 for my sandals in the store. My television stopped working a few weeks ago. I set aside €30 at the start of each month, but, if anything, I have €15 left over by the end.

Spiegel: Where do you try to cut costs?

Apel: I try to cook only once a week to keep energy costs down. In the supermarket, they have these big chicken stews that only cost about €3, and the portion lasts me about four days. I don't eat at all most evenings, and I haven't been to the doctor in years. The €10 fee, the medicine -- it's all too expensive.

Spiegel: Do you have any family?

Apel: I have four kids. Two of my sons live in Hamburg, and they don't have much themselves. One son lives in Stuttgart, and my daughter lives north of Hanover. I can't visit her. Talking on the phone works, but even then I have to keep my eye on the bill. Being poor also makes you lonely.

Spiegel: What did you get today from the food bank?

Apel: Oh, today was a good day. I pulled number 15. That means I was near the front, and there was still a lot left -- vegetables, fruit, rolls. I also got a yogurt, a canned fish filet and a bouquet of flowers.

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