Broken Ladder Social Justice Becomes Elusive in Germany

It used to be that a rising economic tide in Germany floated all boats. That, though, hasn't been true for some time now as the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. Political parties are pledging to address the issue, but have competing visions of social justice.

By and


Who knows whether he will ever return to this office building. Who knows whether he will ever be allowed to set foot in such a building again -- a place where employees sip their espressos on designer couches and gaze at the sky through a glass ceiling.

Can, the 20-year-old son of Turkish immigrants, doesn't know either, so he pulls out his smartphone and takes a few snapshots. He photographs the shiny coffeemaker, the plants in concrete planters and the paternoster carrying men and women in business dress.

At this point, Can is merely a guest. With his plaid shirt and large headphones dangling around his neck, he still looks noticeably out of place in the Munich offices of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). He is there because one of the management consultants is his personal coach. The employment office has brought them together, and now they are collaborating on a project: Can's future.

It had looked pretty grim until now. Can had what advisors at the employment office call "difficult starting conditions." He grew up in a neighborhood with many high-rise buildings and very few music schools. He repeated the 5th, 7th and 10th grades and left school with close to a failing grade in math and German. He didn't even bother to send out job applications.

Now a consultant is trying to help him, a man "from another world," as Can says, from a world in which people print their Ph.D. titles on their business cards and send their children on foreign exchange programs. From Mondays to Thursdays, BCG consultant Fabian Barthel works on plans for roads and dams in Africa. He spends his Friday afternoons on pro bono work, helping Can find an apprenticeship -- as a sort of personal aid worker. "Can's starting conditions were definitely worse than mine. But it can't be that this shapes the rest of our lives," says Barthel. Or at least this doesn't agree with his notion of justice, he adds.

Won't Change Much

Posters and flyers distributed around Germany provide people like Can and Barthel with an idea of how the political parties define justice. Politicians with the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), praise child care subsidies for parents who stay home with their children. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) promises more stable pensions. Lawmakers say that everything that's good about the German system should remain as it is. But that won't change much for someone like Can.

The parties have discovered the benefits using social justice as a campaign tool. The J-word is a common theme in many election platforms. The Greens invoke justice about 60 times while the SPD mentions the word almost 40 times in its program. The Left Party follows close behind. The SPD says it wants to contain what its chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück, calls "the centrifugal forces in society," by raising taxes on higher-earners. The Greens want to impose a levy on the assets of the wealthy. Their voters support "an equitable distribution of taxes," even if it means reaching into their own pockets, says Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the Green Party's top candidate.

Conservatives, meanwhile, aren't tying the promise of social justice to higher taxes, but to government benefits. They want to increase pensions for older mothers and boost small retirement pensions by turning them into a "life achievement pension." Chancellor Angela Merkel's party also wants to increase the childcare subsidy next year. "Every family is different -- and each family is especially important to us," the conservatives have printed on their campaign posters. The message is clear: We are throwing money at you.

"Social justice is a fancy term that means something different for everyone. That's precisely what makes it so attractive for the parties in the election campaign," says Michael Sommer, who regularly polls Germans on their views about social balance. A project director at the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Polling, Sommer has just unveiled a major study in this election year. The parties' strategists would be well advised to read it.

Something Completely Different

About two-thirds of Germans believe that social conditions have become more inequitable in the last legislative period. At the same time, the share of Germans who view the tax system as unfair has increased sharply. Only 21 percent of those polled consider income distribution to be the most important problem. A majority of 57 percent believes that justice mainly signifies a balance of opportunities -- which is something completely different.

The polls coincide with findings among academics. The gap between rich and poor has been widening since the 1980s. But since about 2005, income differentials have narrowed slightly, largely because of the booming labor market, concludes the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW).

In contrast, the barriers between social classes have grown. Between 1996 and 1999, close to 70 percent of people in West Germany managed to work their way up and out of the lowest income bracket. Between 2006 and 2009, however, only 52 percent -- and only 45 percent in former East Germany -- were able to make the same upward move. DIW researcher Markus Grabka notes a "tendency to remain in place," and says: "Upward mobility from the lower edge of society to the center is flagging."

Germany is only moderately successful when it comes to social dynamics. In a recent international comparison of 28 industrialized nations, the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, which is aligned with employers, ranked Germany in 14 place in terms of equal opportunity.

The fact that it has become so difficult to climb from the bottom to the top in Germany also undermines confidence in the economic order, as the German Council of Economic Experts warned about two years ago. Only when there is greater permeability will people from the lower income class "feel sufficiently motivated to invest in their qualification and thus in their social advancement," wrote the five members of the Council. And only when each person believes that he can make it to the top one day will he accept that there are people who make more money.

'Society Is Divided'

But the belief in a better life seems to be disappearing in Germany. Michael Hartmann, a sociologist in the southwestern city of Darmstadt, has studied those who succeed in German society. His sobering conclusion is that those at the top have always been there, and those at the bottom will only rarely make it to the very top. "Society is divided," says Hartmann. "Many people here now believe that their children will be worse and not better off than they are."

The conviction that everyone could make it, as long as he tried hard enough, was one of the founding myths of the old Federal Republic of Germany. In 1957, in the years of the economic miracle, Ludwig Erhard, the first West German economics minister, devised the recipe for success: "Prosperity for All." More than a decade later, Chancellor Willy Brandt enhanced Erhard's material promise with the pledge of upward social mobility. With its notion of education for all, his coalition government sought to create a largely limitless society, in which a person's future was not decided by the circumstances of his or her birth. The goal was that children of blue-collar workers should finally be able to become academics.

It worked for a time. But now a double barrier slows the ascent into the upper levels of society. On the one hand, the divided labor market ensures that entire groups within the labor force are disconnected from the trend toward growing prosperity. On the other hand, the education system is failing when it comes to creating equal starting opportunities for everyone.

The problem begins at birth. "In Germany, the educational opportunities of children depend heavily on their parents' material circumstances," says sociologist Hartmann. And if children are also from an immigrant family in which very little German is spoken, the cycle is already pre-programmed: no German, no high-school diploma. No high-school diploma, no job.

St. Raphael, a Catholic daycare center in Weissenthurm, a town in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, serves 115 children. None of the children come from a household in which the parents have university degrees, and four out of five have foreign roots.

A National Disaster Area

Daycare teacher Martina Huckriede has done a lot to make up for the deficits of some of her charges. She has hired additional personnel, as well as four "intercultural specialists." She has even written a quality manual for encouraging language development. Much has improved since then, and yet Huckriede constantly experiences what she calls "a typical career": children with an immigrant background often have language problems and drop out of school. "I'm pleased to hear about every child that ends up going to high-school or completing a great vocational training program."

A child's abilities and talents ought to shape his or her future. Instead, the German education system sorts children on the basis of social background. Of 100 children from well-educated families, 79 reach the upper level of high school, compared with only 43 from non-educated families.

In June the Bertelsmann Foundation, in a discussion of equal opportunity in the education system, concluded that despite minor progress, "social background continues to have a strong influence on educational success."

Education policy is a national disaster area. Instead of focusing on and nurturing problem groups, the cash-strapped states are getting bogged down in a pointless rivalry. Bavaria sends its children to elementary school for four years, while the city-state of Berlin requires six years. Some states are getting rid of lower-tier secondary schools called the Hauptschule, while others are keeping them in place. Some states have their high-school students graduate with the Abitur diploma after 13 years and others after 12 -- or they simply leave the decision up to the schools. And about 50,000 young people a year are still dropping out.

If they're lucky, they'll find a job. But the path to the upper levels of the income scale often remains blocked for them, because the working world widens the social divides in the country even more. Those who are well educated and flexible have access to the best job and career opportunities. Meanwhile, many with few qualifications must make do with jobs in the country's growing low-wage sector, in which professional and material successes are simply no longer an option. And even though the labor market reforms of the SPD/Green Party coalition government helped to reduce poverty in Germany, the key condition of sharing in Germany's growing prosperity is work.

More Low Paying Jobs

Unemployment rose steadily in Germany until 2005, with each new downturn leaving behind a higher number of people without prospects. Then the trend was reversed, and even the numbers of the long-term unemployed shrank. But success has its price. The normal employer-employee relationship, with a secure and open-ended contract, was supplemented with the relentless principle behind the Hartz IV welfare reforms undertaken in the 1990s: Poorly paid work is better than no work at all.

The number of low-paying jobs has grown since then. They include part-time work, temp work and mini jobs. This has reduced unemployment. But the new, flexible jobs formed fewer bridges to traditional forms of employment than anticipated. Even today, the unemployment rate among poorly qualified workers is still close to 20 percent. Those affected are also confronted with anxiety and hardships.

Oliver Schneider is 32. He obtained the entrance qualification for a university of applied sciences and completed a training program as an automobile electrician at Daimler in Sindelfingen in southern Germany. Later on, he moved to a Peugeot repair shop. When one of the employees had to be let go after two years, Schneider was chosen. "I was the youngest and I didn't have a family," he says.

At the end of 2003, the employment office sent him to a temp agency. Since then, Schneider hasn't managed to escape temporary work. When one temp agency let him go, the employment office send him to another one, or sometimes even back to the same agency that had just let him go.

"I've already had at least 30 different jobs in 45 companies," says Schneider. During a recall campaign, he was working as a temp at Daimler again. He has worked as a mover and construction helper, in an office and in factories. "When I had been in a company for a longer period of time, I worked extra hard to be hired full-time," says Schneider. The strategy never worked.

'Lousy'

Schneider earns about €1,050 ($1,392) a month, after taxes. The automotive electrician is still hoping for a regular job, but he feels that his chances are slim. When asked about his future prospects, he can think of only one word: "lousy."

Germany is fast turning into a three-class society. At the top are managers with salaries in the millions, business owners with thriving firms and successful self-employed individuals. Then comes the multitude of well-educated and well-trained white-collar workers and skilled craftsmen with high and above-average incomes. Finally, the lower third, consisting of those with few qualifications and people who no longer receive public health insurance or unemployment benefits. They stand little chance of climbing the social ladder.

In the first few postwar decades, even those with low-paying jobs benefited from growing prosperity. Nowadays, those who once formed the core of the workforce are disconnected from rising incomes.

"Especially starting in the mid-1990s, the income gap between poorly qualified and highly qualified workers became wider," says Ulrich Walwei, deputy director of the Institute for Employment Research (IAB). According to IAB calculations, real wages among poorly qualified workers have declined to 1984 levels in the last two decades, while incomes rose substantially among highly qualified workers, despite the crisis and wage restraint.

Those who already have a lot receive even more, while those with no education or training remain at the losing end of the scale. It is a vicious circle that influences social stratification in Germany far more than any tax or healthcare reform.

This is bitter news for politicians. The message is that if they truly wish to make Germany a more equitable place, they have to create more opportunities for advancement, especially in education and on the labor market.

Top of the Scale

But the plans of Social Democrats and Greens to collect more money from the rich and invest it in education are only moderately helpful. A new DIW study shows that the tax reform plans will generate much less revenue than anticipated. Besides, the parties still have other costly promises up their sleeves.

Most of all, the problem can't be solved with money alone. More slots in daycare centers and more childcare workers are ineffective when families don't send their children to daycare centers in the first place. And programming the labor market for advancement requires a new way of thinking among all those involved. What Germany needs are business owners who invest more in continuing education, job placement officers who focus more heavily on poorly qualified workers, and politicians who stop privileging precarious employment circumstances, such as mini-jobs and temp work. "It's time for us to finally take the calls for life-long learning seriously," says IAB deputy director Walwei.

But short-term political successes are difficult to achieve with such protracted restructuring programs.

Instead, citizens interested in justice and fairness are taking matters into their own hands. Consultant Fabian Barthel had eventually had enough of simply looking on as the system kept producing one education failure after another. He joined the "Joblings" initiative, a joint social project of the BCG and the Eberhard von Kuenheim Foundation. Barthel doesn't want "the question of whether one grew up in an educated environment or a social hot spot to determine a person's path in life." That's why he spent weeks coaching Can on how to write job applications and how to respond to questions in interviews.

The problem has already yielded some successes. Can recently completed an internship with an insurance company. He starts an apprenticeship in September, and he has more goals than that. "My dream is to be able to afford a nice apartment in a good neighborhood one day," he says. He likes the upscale Schwabing neighborhood, for example.

That's at the very top of the scale in Munich.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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