Leading Germany’s kids down a dead-end street

Leading Germany's kids down a dead-end street
Photo: DPA
Germany’s highest court has ruled Hartz IV welfare payments unconstitutional because children only receive a percentage of adult benefits. But Tissy Bruns from Der Tagesspiegel doubts the decision will end up helping poorer kids.

Children’s lives are not worth a fraction of their parents’ lives, according to the Constitutional Court. The justices in Karlsruhe on Tuesday also reminded us that German society has committed itself to ensuring everyone has a basic level of subsistence. An illustrious ruling, yet it was still a depressing day.

In regards to Germany’s children, it’s never been so vital to stick to the principles of the welfare state – yet it’s never been so difficult to do so. The high court indirectly confirmed this by stressing it did not wish to provide concrete answers, preferring to leave this onus to the country’s politicians.

The decision simply highlights the problem at hand: 1.7 million children under the age of 14 currently live from Hartz IV welfare benefits. That’s every sixth child in Germany and growing. Berlin is a perfect example. The parts of the city with high levels of unemployment are also blessed with an abundance of children. But those who would consider the future of these kids exclusively the responsibility of their parents should think otherwise. If we let them head down a dead-end street, we will waste our only natural resource – creative and productive minds. These “problem children” are the demographic hope of the German welfare state.

But social and educational dead-end streets are not solely the product of lacking means – they also occur through the exclusion caused by child poverty. Such childhoods are deprived of music classes, sport and other extracurricular activities. Worst of all, they won’t have the example of self-sufficient working parents to follow. That’s why simply increasing Hartz IV benefits would be the wrong answer to the court decision, and not only because it would be prohibitively expensive. That would be the same indifferent attitude taken towards people on welfare before the Hartz IV reforms: We’ll pay for these people, but not give a damn about them.

Five years on, it would appear Hartz IV has failed to make the German social security net – facing strains from both demographics and globalisation – fit for the future. The latest court decision does not change the underlying impetus that pushed Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s centre-left coalition to these reforms. Social benefits must first and foremost be financed by taxpayers. Each welfare payment makes the cost of labour higher – which in turn makes the job market more difficult.

The principle of helping people in need while demanding that the able-bodied work only functioned for a short time before being blindsided by cold, hard reality. Firstly because companies used the labour market’s new flexibility to exploit temporary workers on a grand scale. Then the global financial crisis devoured the rest of the modest headway that had been made in putting people back in work. After that, there wasn’t much money left over with which to help people.

The consequence? Welfare payments for growing children probably never should have been calculated as a crude percentage of support for adults on the dole. Healthy food, theatre, music and sport at full-day schools would be more beneficial to them. Politicians must finally find the answer to our educational lethargy and use our meagre public funding were it helps children best. They should also implement a minimum wage to halt workers’ income from spiralling further downward. But this is the most depressing aspect of the Constitutional Court’s utterly predictable ruling.

The federal government should have seen it coming, yet has chosen to waste what precious little money it has for children. The recent decision to raise the Kindergeld child subsidy did not apply to the 1.7 million kids on the dole and it won’t help them either at home or in school.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.

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