The World from Berlin A German Underclass? What Underclass?

On cue for World Poverty Day, a controversy has erupted in Berlin over one politician's use of one word -- "underclass" -- as if no one in the German government had quite realized that poor people existed. The truth is that poverty has existed here for years, but recently it has been getting worse.

Years after welfare reform in Germany began to cause social unrest, politicians in Berlin have rediscovered poverty. A wide-ranging study released on Monday reports an unsurprising gap between the German rich and poor. It also warns of a "disenfranchised precariat," apparently a new sociological term referring to Germans whose future looks precarious.

A study released on Monday by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is aligned with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), claims that 6.5 million Germans live in poverty without much prospect of improving their lot. That's eight percent of all Germans; and that figure rises up to 20 percent in some parts of the former east. Of those surveyed who were living under the poverty level -- which the think tank described as a monthly take-home wage of less than €938 (e.g. less than 60 percent of the average German salary) -- the average person had an income of €424 per month. They also shared other uncomfortable traits: heavy indebtedness, a low-level of education, they often have little or no familial support to fall back on and they have a penchant for politics with an authoritarian bent.

The surge in poverty is being attributed to a dramatic number of long-term unemployed in the country (especially in the states that were part of East Germany) and the level of education and qualifications necessary to get a foothold in today's job market. The study's author even went so far as to warn that Germany was in a greater danger of "sliding into poverty" than other European countries.

The debate first got rolling about a week ago, when SPD party chairman Kurt Beck sought to dress the problem to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung in plain words. "Many people call it an underclass problem," he said. "There are far too many people in Germany who see no more hope of improving their situation." He called this underclass a new phenomenon because poor families in the past had always tried to do better. But these days, he said, they've given up.

In the wake of the poverty report, politicians and newspapers from the right and left have tried to grapple with the problem -- or at least explain it away. Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday said the German government would "not resign itself to accepting this division (between rich and poor)," while the Social Democrats' second-in-command, Franz Müntefering, said "underclass" was just an unfortunate term -- since "there are no classes" in Germany. Nevertheless, another of the study's claims is that the divide between the rich and poor is growing.

Beneath this squabble, of course, runs an ongoing debate over how to reform Germany's expensive welfare system, and the German business daily Handelsblatt argues that ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's attempts to make difficult cuts with the so-called Hartz IV reform package were "important steps to deal with the 'underclass problem'" -- "even if the labor unions and the left wing of (Schröder's) SPD would rather not hear that." The controversial Hartz IV package scaled back benefits to the country's jobless.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung argues the German left needs to answer for the new underclass; the paper points out that "hardly any nation in the European Union spends as much as Germany on social benefits -- and hardly any gets such poor results." The German welfare state needs to be reformed, writes the editor. "The problem lies in the welfare state itself, which pays workers to drop out of the labor market instead of trying to re-activate them."

The left-wing Die Tageszeitung piles on the SPD for abandoning its traditional role of defending the workers and the poor. The Hartz IV reforms have been unpopular in Germany for cutting benefits to unemployed workers, but the commentator argues that the reforms aren't the real source of the problem: "Hartz IV has only made the new poverty visible." The paper criticizes Social Democrats for taking a Tony Blair-style New Labour approach and "sweeping away the old social state" without developing practical policies for the aftermath. "Western German society has considered itself egalitarian and socially pliable for a long time," the paper writes. "But for a long time that's been a fantasy."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung deals with the problem in more depth, pointing out that the "new social question" of poverty in the German welfare state was identified years ago, in the late '70s -- "although the problem has multiplied in the meantime." Recession after recession has increased unemployment, generations of Germans have grown dependent on the state, and East Germany -- last but not least -- has collapsed, writes the paper. The post-industrial wave sweeping America and Europe has also cost Germany millions of jobs. The editors therefore argue in favor of welfare reform and job creation. "Economic growth alone won't solve social problems that have taken decades to develop," they conclude. "But it will create a necessary foundation for a successful fight against poverty."

-- Michael Scott Moore, 12:30 CET

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