It‘s about child poverty, working poor, poverty among single parents, among retirees. The issue of poverty is more present than ever in German election campaigns. It is also a big problem among the eastern neighbours: one in six people in Germany lives below the poverty line. Once you’re poor, it‘s harder to escape in Germany than in other European countries. And the gap between poor and rich is only increasing.
“They are two worlds that live completely by each other,” says volunteer Veronika Hempe. She works at the Kiezladen in Berlin’s Prenzlauerberg: a place where people can get free clothes, legal advice and – on Friday – food. Prenzlauerberg is of the most coveted pieces of Berlin. Beautiful stately properties, with matching rentals. Coffee bars, restaurants, yoga studios everywhere. The district is fully gentrified.
Maybe not the most obvious place for a food bank, but appearances are deceiving, says Hempe. “In the past, just after the fall of the wall, Prenzlauerberg wasn‘t such a rich neighborhood at all. Some of the people who came to live here at that time are still there. If they haven’t been forced to move, as the rents are rising at lightning speed.”
High rents, rising food and petrol prices: Especially in major cities, the number of people who are no longer living unassisted is growing. As well as visitors to these Kiezladen. “I have a pension of 580 euros a month, which is supplemented to assistance level,” says an older lady who has lived in Prenzlauerberg all her life, had several jobs, but is not enough for daily groceries. She feels the gap between herself and the neighbors every day: “If you hear what the people deserve here, that‘s impossible to believe. Why so much?”
The German poverty problem has several causes. At the beginning of this century, the rules for employers were relaxed to tackle unemployment. That worked, but now the country has a huge low-wage sector. The country has only had a minimum wage of 9.60 euros per hour since 2015. As a result, 2.8 million pensioners, who have worked for at least 45 years, live on or below the poverty line. All parties promise that pensions will not go down. But whether that succeeds is the question, because the pension system is in need of reforms.
‘Working full-time but not saving it‘
Today, the Kiezladen reports a lot of pensioners and unemployed Berliners, but there are also plenty of people who do work, says Ulrich Balling. He gives free legal advice in the store. “Cleaners, day laborers, shop staff. They work, some full-time too, but don’t make it.” According to him, the German minimum wage does not prevent people from falling into poverty. “People don‘t have enough to put money aside. If anything happens, it’s immediate crisis.”
Balling is excited about the Social Democratic SPD‘s plans to raise the minimum wage to 12 euros. “A pay increase for 10 million Germans,” is stirring on the SPD election posters. The Greens and Die Linke also want a higher minimum wage. The hope is that, among other things, increases the upward mobility – the chance to climb from the low-wage sector to the middle class. With a little more wages, people would be able to buffer and have more room to develop.
There is little enthusiasm among visitors to Kiezladen about political plans to tackle poverty. Skepticism prevails. “I lost all faith in politics,” Richard says. He doesn’t want to say what his last name is. “I would be okay if wealthy people have to pay more taxes, about their assets, for example. But I don‘t have the idea that politics really want to do something for people like me. At least I haven’t noticed any of that in recent years.”