The World from Berlin: Is Poverty in Germany Really a Problem?

An eighth of all Germans live in poverty, and another eighth might be on the way -- at least according to a report on poverty and wealth approved by the government this week. But German commentators and politicians of all stripes are finding different ways to spin the figures.

A new report says one in eight Germans lives in poverty. But do the 2005 figures really reflect the current reality?
AP

A new report says one in eight Germans lives in poverty. But do the 2005 figures really reflect the current reality?

A revised report on German poverty released Wednesday has caused a measure of confusion in political circles, now that cabinet ministers have approved it, because a clear picture of Germans' economic trouble doesn't seem to emerge. Critics say it paints a grim picture while insisting things are great.

The original report, released in May, sparked controversy within Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet -- as well as calls for heavy revisions. Now government spokesman Thomas Steg has praised the the revision approved Wednesday, saying its results were clear: "Germany's welfare state works," he said.

But how can that be, when the report -- based on 2005 figures -- says 12 percent of children under 15 in Germany are threatened with poverty, that 13 percent of the total German population lives in poverty, and that one in four Germans would live in poverty if not for public assistance?

The answers may depend on political persuasion. Michael Glos, the economics minister for Merkel's CDU party, responded to the depressing numbers by pointing to the country's recent economic upswing. "The social reality of 2008 is completely different than that of 2005," Glos said Wednesday. "People have profited from the upswing."

Opposition parties, however, beg to differ. The Green Party accuses the government of "a failed attempt to hide (its) failures in the fight against poverty," according to the Associated Press, and the Left Party echoes this criticism.

Germany's commentators disagree just as widely on the report -- and on where to point the finger in the blame game:

Right-leaning Die Welt writes:

"In this country, people like to equate disparity with injustice. But the fact that a person who studies harder, and achieves more, also earns more than his more casual colleague is not just fair but necessary. These differences motivate people to perform. Policies designed to level everything out penalize the hard-working and establish poor incentives. Germany's welfare state is partially responsible for the fact that the will to advance has flagged in certain segments of society. When high school students boast about wanting to be professional dole recipients, when third-generation immigrants can't speak fluent German, when the long-term unemployed have unrealistic salary expectations, then something is wrong in Germany."

"Poverty is bearable when you know that things will improve. Most students have no problem scraping by on a little money. The important point is to have prospects. But you can't have prospects if you've never learned to work hard."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Before (the revised report) ... many members of the grand coalition argued about whether this report showed the actual state of poverty. In all of the fights, the issue wasn't really poverty and wealth but, instead, how the statistics could be used to win political advantage."

"The debate gave rise to every imaginable campaign promise. In the process, truly crucial issues have been left by the wayside: Who will continue to finance our welfare state? Are more and more people really falling through the safety net? How good is our tax system, compared with other countries? This is what really needs to be discussed. But, of course, doing so is more complicated than promoting 'whatever-you-want' policies."

Left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"How widespread is poverty in Germany? It continues to be a question of how you define poverty -- and, one might say, how you define power. It's clear from the edited version of the poverty and wealth report that the government has interpreted the data in a very loose and partisan way…"

"If you read the report, though, it's easy to discover the embellishment: For example, in the report's statistics section, it's hard to miss that other studies, such as that of the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), put the rate of those at risk of poverty at 18 percent (instead of 13 percent). The fact that the government is trying to spruce up the social situation in Germany in such a hard-nosed way is not just some harmless thing. In the end, doing so suggests that many poor people are just imagining their poverty. It makes crybabies out of victims."

-- Josh Ward, 12:30 p.m. CET

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