Need for social welfare grows steadily in western Germany

October 21, 1990|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Two years after being spiffily renovated, Berlin's famous Zoologischer Garten train station has recaptured its old air: Unwashed and drunken men loll around the waiting halls, beggars wait outside for a coin and burned-out heroin addicts shuffle around aimlessly.

They are often hustled off by patrolling policemen but always return, an unwelcome reminder that in the days of German unity and unbroken economic growth there are ever more people living in poverty.

The fact that the number of social welfare recipients increases almost every month to new highs has been forgotten in the wave of euphoria and worry about German unity.

More than 3 million people in the former West Germany depend on welfare, and an additional 3.3 million are estimated to live below the poverty level on other forms of social aid, making every 10th West German poor. This is about a 25 percent increase since 1980.

"All one reads about is how bad things are in East Germany. This makes us in the west sometimes feel too smug," said Peter Grottian, a political science professor at the Free University of Berlin.

This smugness is reflected in opinion polls. Dieter Roth of Wahlen, a German public opinion research group, said 85 percent in the west feel satisfied with their country's system, an all-time high that he feels is caused by the daily doom-and-gloom reports from the eastern sector.

Many people who do concede a problem usually attribute it to the pressures that have resulted from unification, such as the high number of East German refugees.

But poverty has been on the increase since the 1970s and especially since the recession of 1981, Mr. Grottian said. Unemployment almost doubled and is only now being reduced in the west, although this appears to be at the expense of East Germans.

The number of social welfare recipients in West Germany has increased 50 percent since 1982 and continues to rise to all-time highs.

Before the drive to unification started a year ago, homelessness, high housing costs and the growth of a potentially permanent underclass -- the unlucky one-third in the "two-thirds society" -- were a top theme of discussion in West Germany. But then reports on the situation took a distant second place to unification and East Germany's mounting economic problems.

"Even if we accept that no one in West Germany is absolutely poor and that no one has hunger, this can't reduce the fact that we have poor and that the number of poor is on the increase. We have to address this fact because we are in the process of exporting our economic model to East Germany," said Gerd Iben, a sociologist with the Paritaet Welfare Association in Frankfurt.

Most West Germans start their descent into poverty with unemployment. The country, which has been going through the difficult process of replacing traditional industries with high technology, has been burdened with a high number of unemployed. The August rate was 6.9 percent, or 1.8 million, although this does not include those who have given up looking or those engaged in make-work programs that often lead back to the unemployment line.

Although the unemployed can qualify for fairly generous aid, such as extra money for winter heating, rent subsidies and lower public transportation costs, many are baffled and discouraged by Germany's complicated and time-consuming bureaucracy. Qualifying for welfare often means facing hostile civil servants and requires exhausting days waiting in line.

"This demands the sort of endurance and cleverness that many poor just don't have. Often they're the very people who are unemployed because they can't keep pace in today's society," Mr. Iben said.

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