The World from Berlin: What's the Price of Life?

Many Germans affected by recent changes in the country's welfare system have been taking their cases to court. Now Germany's Federal Social Court has ruled that a monthly €345 plus rent and heating are enough to live on -- if you like the simple life.

Welfare recipients in Berlin's Pankow neighborhood stop by the local soup kitchen for a hot meal. The soup kitchen serves between 300 and 400 people a day.
DPA

Welfare recipients in Berlin's Pankow neighborhood stop by the local soup kitchen for a hot meal. The soup kitchen serves between 300 and 400 people a day.

How much cash does a person need to survive? Germany's welfare institutions have calculated a precise answer, now confirmed in a decision by the Federal Social Court: €345 per month is officially considered the minimum subsistence income, rent and heating not included.

The figure, in effect since German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder introduced new welfare reforms in 2004 and 2005, was recently contested in court by a woman who argued that her three-person family could not survive on the €1,052 it was getting in rent and welfare payments. But the court ruled on Thursday that the sum is adequate.

Various editorials in German papers comment on the court ruling, which came only a few weeks after a high-profile public debate on the existence of an "underclass" in German society. Reactions to the court ruling vary -- not surprisingly, the conservative press interprets the court decision as hard but necessary, while liberal and left-leaning papers criticize it as unjust.

The conservative daily Die Welt disapproves of the "flood of trials" that German courts have faced since the introduction of the welfare reforms: "It's time to remember that the welfare payment in question is intended for needy people and financed by tax payers. Far too many people are treating the welfare system as if it were a question of picking out for themselves whatever they feel they would like." Such behavior, the editorial continues ominously, will ultimately "ruin the welfare state," since "every euro can be spent only once." What's more, raising the level of the monthly transfer would entail cutting other services such as school subsidies, according to the paper. "A state that cares for its citizens has to enable them to take care of themselves," it writes. "And in today's globalized world, the key to that is education -- it provides the only basis for helping the genuinely needy both today and tomorrow."

The concept of a minimum subsistence income is easy to define, according to the center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung: "It's the amount of money a person in Germany needs in order to just stay alive." But the paper's editorialist can't help noticing that "the minimum is sometimes higher, sometimes lower, depending on who gets it," from parents, to the long-term unemployed and asylum seekers. The discrepancies are striking, the paper says, with asylum seekers finding themselves at the very bottom of the food chain. The paper argues that the solutions to the country's social problems currently being offered by the German welfare state are inadequate and even phony. There are people who cannot support themselves, "sometimes it's their own fault, and sometimes it isn't." The paper aruges that although the welfare state promises them a minimum subsistence income, "it also resorts to dirty tricks: Average cost of living is calculated on the basis of the lowest incomes; the figures lawmakers use date back eight years; and a number of items have been removed from the basket, such that not a single euro is made available for education and childcare, for example."

The Financial Times Deutschland joins in the discussion by invoking the virtues of asceticism: "It may not be easy to live on €345 a month (plus rent), and it's not fun," the business daily writes, "but it's possible." The court ruling is "no surprise," in the commentator's view, since "the new welfare system has the goal of providing people with a minimum subsistence income -- no more than that." The rejection of the current welfare system formulated by its "radical critics" is simply an unfortunate result of the last German government's "inept political communication," according to the commentator: "There was a lot of talk about the need to save money, but no one succeeded in explaining or justifying the genuine paradigm shift in labor market and social policy -- with the result that the current welfare system can be regularly denounced as 'poverty by law.'" In fact, things aren't as bad as that slogan suggests, the business daily insists: "€345 plus rent doesn't leave a lot of leeway, but it's enough for a simple life."

-- Max Henninger, 15:30 p.m. CET

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