Expenditures for social security and poverty reduction are still high in Germany. However, social inequality and poverty risk is increasing. During the years of rising unemployment, poverty risks increased as well, setting Germany on the path to a more unequal society. But this data does not yet appropriately reflect the successes of recent years in lowering long-term unemployment, a key driver of poverty. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the robust labor-market situation will be reflected in social data.
Regional heterogeneity is substantial. In the former East Germany, the average poverty level is 20%, with levels reaching nearly 30% in some areas. By contrast, some of the former West German or “old” states in the south (Hesse, Bavaria, and Baden-Württemberg) have poverty rates around 11%. “Old” states in the north show higher poverty rates than do their counterparts in the south. Though there is a methodological dispute as to whether these figures are realistic given the significantly lower costs of living in the former East Germany, a fact not adequately reflected in the study, these results point to marked differences between East and West.
In addition, there are considerable differences in income levels between the individual states. The poverty line is drawn at an income level which is less than 60% of the national average income wage. For singles this amounts to €764 per month, and for couples without children to €1,376. The average poverty rate nationwide is 14.3%, with the average in the former West being 12.9%, 6.6% lower than in the former East. A more detailed picture is given by the German federal government’s 2008 Report on Poverty and Wealth. More and more workers with fulltime jobs have incomes which are below the poverty line. In addition, the middle class, defined as having income between 70% and 150% of the average income, is constantly decreasing. Only 54% of employees are now grouped as being part of the middle class, compared to 62% in 2000. Only a small number jumped into the wealthy group (with income above 150% of the average), whereas most of those leaving the middle class fell into the group with high poverty risk. Within the poor income groups, income has consistently moved away from the 60% of average income level, thus intensifying the poverty risk.
Children’s poverty rates have also increased in recent years. Today it is estimated that more than 3 million German children live in poverty; in some cities, such as Berlin, more than 35% of all children are poor.
Concerning pensioners, only 2.3% are dependent solely on basic social security. However, today’s favorable situation of relatively wealthy pensioners cannot be extrapolated into future decades. After many years of high levels of unemployment, low Hartz IV welfare payments, decreasing wage incomes and unsteady work lives, an increasing share of the population will be faced poverty in retirement. In addition, changes to the pension formula in recent years have aimed at reducing pension benefit payments.
A simulation study performed by the German Institute of Economic Research (DIW) makes clear that pensions in the years to come will consistently decline. Whereas East Germans may currently expect a pension between €900 and €1000 per month, for those who were born between 1962 and 1971, the level will sink to around €600 per month, which is near the basic income security level. Younger cohorts may face pensions which lie under that line. In addition, low-income groups are unable to save money in private pension funds, which would complement their low state pensions with private assets.
Reducing the various risks of social exclusion while at the same time making the German welfare state sustainable for future challenges – primarily demographic changes and changes in labor conditions – seems an impossible task. The groups particularly at risk of poverty are mainly the unemployed with uncompleted or no vocational training, single parents, and persons with a migration background. To effectively deal with the problems of these groups remains a task for the years to come. However, there have been discussions about setting a government-guaranteed minimum wage, something that has previously been done only through the social partners. The Assigned Workers Act requires that a collective bargaining agreement should apply to at least 50% of workers in a given industry, thus varying from sector to sector. The outgoing government changed the Assigned Workers Act in order to make it easier for the social partners to introduce minimum wages in a larger number of sectors. Today, around 3 million workers are covered by minimum wages agreements. The question of whether statutory minimum wages can be part of a coherent strategy to boost employment and fight poverty, and thus foster social inclusion, remains a highly controversial issue in German politics and economic theory in general. There is the risk that a politically motivated establishment of an excessive statutory minimum wage may not reflect economic realities, thus leading to unemployment for those with low educational attainment. If that were the case, a minimum wage could even worsen the problem of social exclusion and transfer dependency.
Since unemployment is the major economic factor in poverty risk, the recent favorable labor market developments represent a sign of hope. This trend could demonstrate that the Hartz labor market reforms were successful in fighting poverty in the medium term due to their success in reducing structural unemployment.
Apart from these issues, it is uncontroversial that social inclusion should be addressed through reforms of the education system aimed at reducing the share of people leaving the system without some type of formal qualification.
Other phenomena of social exclusion are even harder to address through political strategies. Looser family ties, shrinking involvement in associations and lower membership in religious communities all point to trends implying a greater risk of individual isolation. Government policy to date has provided a quite favorable environment for citizen involvement, with policies such as the generous tax treatment of voluntary donations to charities and other public interest organizations.
Dümig, Kathrin, 2010: Ruhe nach und vor dem Sturm: Die Arbeitsmarkt- und Beschäftigungspolitik der Großen Koalition, in: Egle, Christoph/Zohlnhöfer, Reimut (eds): Die zweite Große Koalition. Eine Bilanz der Regierung Merkel, 2005-2009, Wiesbaden: VS.