A Single Mom's Hartz IV Struggle 'I Would Love to Show My Children other Countries'

The German government plans to increase its benefit for the long-term unemployed by 5 euros a month, but life will still be a struggle for families like the Schades. Jacqueline Schade and her three children have settled into a difficult life on social benefits in Berlin. It is a life of unfufilled dreams and sometimes even bruises.
Von Anna Fischhaber
Foto: SPIEGEL ONLINE

It doesn't strike one immediately that the Schades are poor. The family's apartment in Berlin's Reinickendorf district is small, but clean. The walls are painted in friendly red tones -- colors also chosen to cover up the water stains. A blanket covers a sofa that has seen its day; and the broken washer-dryer combo that is used as a television stand, is covered with a wooden board. The window sill is filled with ornamental plants -- a luxury that the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel does not want to allow the unemployed in the future. The same applies to the two dogs that are frolicking around the room. "It's a shame because animals are so important to the social behavior of children," Jacqueline Schade says.

Like 6.8 million other people in Germany, the 48-year-old mother lives on so-called Hartz IV, the social welfare payments made by the government to those who have been unemployed for longer than a year. In her case, that means €438 ($594) a month from the Federal Labor Office, and additional €558 from the government's benefit for children and €456 euros to cover the family's health care. Since having an operation on her shoulder, she has had serious problems with her joints. Earlier, she had worked as a seamstress, then as a maid and more recently cleaning the shelves at a supermarket. But with her bad shoulder, she is no longer capable of doing jobs like those. The consequences are palpable in the family's day to day life. Jacqueline no longer has the money she needs to buy new glasses for her daughter Nadine, 14, who urgently needs them. Or the apartment that Michele, 19, would like to move in to. Chayenne, at 11 her youngest daughter, is more practical given the situation. By the age of four, the blonde-haired girl had only one Christmas-time wish -- enough lightbulbs.

'I Try to Make the Impossible Possible'

As politicians debate an increase in the Hartz-IV payments this week, the Schades have already long settled in the limited world of life on welfare. At best, the government's decision this week to increase the monthly amount given to Hartz IV recipients by €5 solicits a wary smile from the mother. For years, the family has been drawing money from the government. Their apartment costs €600 a month, and €900 are left over to take care of everything else -- and survival is only possible with a lot of tricks and clever ways of scraping by. The family's monthly food is stacked up in a deep freezer, which Schade traded with someone in exchange for batches of her own home-made liquor. Once a month, she travels to do her grocery shopping in nearby Poland, where food is cheaper than in Germany. It's the only way she could afford cheese, corn flakes or fish for her children. She gathers mushrooms in the forest and makes her own jams. "I try to make the impossible possible," she says.

She begins collecting the year's Christmas presents in May so that by the end of the year there is at least something under the tree. Money is especially tight for the family in autumn, when she has to buy new winter clothes for her daughters. She often buys black boots and a black, felt-tip marker so that the shoes can look new for at least a little bit longer. But even tricks like that sometimes don't work. Her daughters sometimes still come home with bruises. "I was often laughed at and beaten up at school because I wore the wrong clothes," says daughter Michele. "Or because I couldn't go on a class field trip. "I always said I had some work to do so that I wouldn't have to admit that we simply didn't have the money."

'I Don't Go Out, I Don't Drink, I Don't Buy Anything'

The delicate girl with peroxide blonde hair is happy that she has now completed high school. But she's pessimistic about her future. For two years now, she's been looking for an apprenticeship. And the little that she earns working as a waitress is collected by the government to offset the welfare it pays to the rest of the family. Michele would love to move out of the family's cramped home. At 19 years of age, she is still forced to sleep on the sofa in the living room.

Her sister Nadine shares a bedroom with little Cheyenne that is barely big enough to squeeze in a single bed. The 14-year-old spends her afternoon at the Arche, a children's welfare refuge where meals are served for free. Sometimes the children are even given small gifts, like balls or stuffed animals. Germany's labor minister, Ursula von der Leyen, has proposed creating educational vouchers for children of Hartz IV recipients, so that they can be guaranteed access to educational, cultural and sporting activities in society that they might otherwise be excluded from because they don't have the money. It's a proposal that outrages mother Jacqueline. "Why should I have to go to the employment center and beg for vouchers for my children?" she asks. "If I really want to give my daughters something, then I need to save." She points to her ragged old sweater.

Jacqueline Schade's big dream is to take a trip to Egypt one day. Pictures of Cleopatra and the pyramids hang on the walls all over the apartment. "I would love to show my children other countries," she says. But she would never be able to afford the flight. She says she is fascinated by all the things the people of Egypt have achieved. Perhaps because she has had to work so hard to raise her own family. Her ex-husband only pays the children €5 a month in pocket money. He doesn't have any more because he is also a Hartz IV welfare recipient.

Schade lights up a cigarette. If you want to interprete things strictly, she is no longer entitled to that, either. The government recently removed an allowance in the welfare allotment for tobacco purchases. "I would love to see what the politicians would say if I started telling them how they should spend their money," Schade says, spitefully. "I am an independent person, but my decisions are being made for me."

Now she has talked herself into a fury. Angrily, she grabs another cigarette. "I don't go out, I don't drink and I don't buy anything for myself. But I should at least be able to have one vice left."

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.