Poverty in Germany 'People Are Losing Their Faith in the State'

A total of 1 million people get help every day from Germany's "Deutsche Tafel" food banks -- and that number is set to increase because of the recession. The organization's head, Gerd Häuser, talks to SPIEGEL ONLINE about Germany's new poverty and the dangers of social unrest.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Häuser, you know what poverty looks like in Germany. Does the worsening economic crisis make you feel afraid?

Gerd Häuser: I wouldn't say I'm afraid, but I've become unsure. Economic trends can no longer be predicted, the forecasts are no longer reliable. Only one thing is clear: The number of unemployed will rise significantly -- and with it the number of people who need our assistance.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you seeing that already?

Häuser: Not yet. There is a time lag in the visible effects of the crisis. The social systems kick in first of all. But in the long term, the number of people receiving Hartz IV (ed's note: welfare payments for the long-term unemployed, regarded by critics as insufficient to live on) will rise -- and they can hardly live on the money they receive. Already, 1 million people come to us every day, which amounts to about one-seventh of welfare recipients in Germany.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are companies donating less because they are affected by the crisis?

Häuser: Naturally we are seeing savings being made in certain areas, such as with suppliers, for example. But we have not yet noticed a decline in donations of products. The food sector is feeling the crisis less because people are more likely to cut back on luxury goods than on their daily staples. Even in bad times, for example, there are five different frozen pizzas available in supermarkets. And there are always some left over for us.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it just Hartz IV recipients who seek your help?

Häuser: No. In the past, our clients were mainly homeless people. Today, however, there is a new poverty, which is affecting families with children in particular. These are people who are working full time but whose income is still not enough. This affects people with part-time jobs, single mothers or employees in the low-wage sector who need to top up their incomes with welfare payments. And more and more senior citizens who are living on the minimum state pension are now coming to us.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So these people are completely dependent on you for their food?

Häuser: We aren't able to provide all the food that people need. We only offer a supplement to what the families have themselves. We mostly provide fresh things like fruit, vegetables, bread or sausage. We are not part of the social system -- if it worked, then we would be superfluous. But the gap between those people who have enough and those who have too little is unfortunately increasing. In the long term, it poses the threat of social unrest.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That is precisely the thing that the trade unions and the SPD's presidential candidate, Gesine Schwan, are afraid of. Do you think it will come to that?

Häuser: It remains to be seen whether our social systems are good enough to prevent that from happening. It is completely unclear what risks will hit the state and whether benefits will need to be cut back. Just the plans for the so-called "bad banks" present an equation with many unknown factors. Ordinary people do not understand why (the state) is haggling over every penny at the bottom of the heap while billions are being paid out at the top. As a result, some people are losing their faith in the state, which in the long term threat could turn into a threat to democracy.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How can you stop that from happening?

Häuser: Ultimately, it is a question of preserving human dignity. The way we do this is we make each person pay a symbolic amount -- basically just one coin per family per visit. That way people see themselves as customers and not as recipients of charity. These days people slip quickly into the Hartz IV bracket, which means that really anyone can find themselves in the situation where they need help. Nevertheless, some people still feel ashamed to accept aid, especially older people.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is the effect of the fact that a growing number of people are forced to live like this?

Häuser: If young people are stigmatized from the outset, if they do not get any opportunities from the outset, that leads to dissatisfaction. That doesn't mean that the masses will take to the streets in Germany. That is more likely to happen in France. But it can't be ruled out that here too, some people might resort to violence in a bid to get their voices heard.

Interview conducted by Susanne Amann


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