Merkel Says Germans ‘Never Had It Better.’ But Many Feel Left Behind.

BREMERHAVEN, Germany — In her campaign speeches, Chancellor Angela Merkel loves to tell potential voters in next week’s election that they are living in the best Germany ever. Last year she boasted to Parliament that Germans “have never had it better.”

But it does not feel that way to Helmut Richter.

For the past five years, Mr. Richter, 59, has worked from dawn to dusk, sifting donations for the Tafel food bank in a part of Bremerhaven, a once-prosperous northern port city, that has earned the unwelcome moniker of the “poorest neighborhood in Germany.”

When his organization first opened its doors 22 years ago, it served 300 people. In 2005, the year Ms. Merkel first became chancellor, it served about 1,500 people. Today it serves 10,885. Another 120 families are on a waiting list.

“I think it is tragic that the Tafel even exists, that it needs to exist,” said Mr. Richter, a volunteer who survives on government assistance and his own weekly food ration. “I don’t know what the politicians think is happening here and what they are doing.”

German poverty may sound like an oxymoron. But the disparity between the rich and poor has widened during Ms. Merkel’s 12 years in power, leaving nearly 16 percent of the population at risk of poverty, according to government figures. This incongruity has ushered in greater insecurity in a country that prides itself on its equitable social market system.

The country, no doubt, remains one of the world’s wealthiest, home to four of the globe’s largest companies by revenue, according to Forbes, with one of the highest average incomes in the European Union and lowest unemployment rates, at 5.7 percent.

That prosperity is often credited to Germany’s early embrace of neo-liberal economic reforms, a version of which are now being snapped in place even by President Emmanuel Macron of France.

Since the 1990s, these reforms have helped the German economy grow, kept unemployment low and averted the kind of debt crisis that hobbled the country’s European Union partners.

But the negative impacts of those same policies — put in place by Ms. Merkel’s Social Democratic predecessor, Gerhard Schröder — have intensified, analysts say.

Christoph Butterwegge, a political scientist who focuses on poverty at the University of Cologne, rejects the chancellor’s claim of a uniformly prosperous Germany as “superficial and undifferentiated.”

He blames her successive governments for allowing the families and individuals who run German companies to amass wealth through advantageous taxes and persistently low wages.

“That is her mantra, and it is true for a large majority of the people in Germany,” Mr. Butterwegge said of the chancellor’s line about German affluence. “But the growing prosperity of the majority has come at the expense of many others.”
Even as the number of working people has increased, so has the number of people relying on government benefits. Since 2012, an additional 2.1 million people have turned to government assistance. In all, 7.2 percent of the population rely on it.

Many are the working poor whose incomes are not enough to sustain them. More than seven million people hold so-called mini-jobs, part-time positions without any contributions to health insurance.

That is the darker side of the reforms, known as Agenda 2010. Although widely credited with increasing competitiveness and getting millions into jobs, many of those jobs have not provided a living wage.

They have led to a casting out of workers unable to keep pace with a fast-moving, flexible job market — something critics of Mr. Macron’s proposed overhaul of the French labor code are warning against.

“Poverty and wealth are structurally connected in this country, as they are in the United States, and Angela Merkel only sees that part of society that has benefited from the reforms of the Agenda 2010 that she refers to repeatedly and increasingly positively,” Mr. Butterwegge said.

“But if I look at other developments, such as the precarious job situation, 1.2 million people who hold down jobs but still live below the poverty level — the food banks have more than 1.5 million people whom they are helping — how an average family has never had it so difficult to find affordable housing in Germany’s large cities — these are developments that Angela Merkel likes to block out,” he said.

That rising insecurity has been the underlying context for the current election campaign, even if not a breakthrough issue.

Earlier this year, the center-left Social Democrats flocked to Martin Schulz, as a man who could return the party to roots that many saw as betrayed by Chancellor Schröder’s reforms.
Support for the Social Democrats — traditionally the party of workers and the champion of a strong system of social benefits — soared to around 30 percent in March.

“Time for equality. Time for Martin Schulz,” the party’s slogan went.

But even though studies show a majority of Germans worried about growing disparities, Mr. Schulz failed to maintain that message, after his party lost a state election late in March, said Bern Schlipphak, a political scientist at the University of Münster.

“In the beginning, he tried very hard to just sell the left-wing positions and I think he was very successful. People believed him, and they like the idea of turning left,” Mr. Schlipphak said. “Then came the Saarland elections and he just did a flip-flop move.”

With the Sept. 24 election just days away, support for the Social Democrats has slumped to historic lows, around 23 percent or less.

Even Mr. Richter at the food bank sees no option for himself at the polls, and says he is undecided.

Ms. Merkel’s conservatives can only offer more of the same, he said. The more libertarian Free Democrats would only help the rich. The Social Democrats seem powerless. Other parties on the left are too radical.
For him, that left only the far-right Alternative for Germany, with its nationalist populist platform, which appears poised to emerge as the third-strongest party, with around 10 percent support.

“They make some good points, but considering what I do, they are out of the question,” Mr. Richter said, pointing out that his organization is helping integrate the roughly one million refugees the far right opposes.

Manfred Jabs, the director of the Bremerhaven Tafel, looks like a cross between a sea captain and a Santa Claus, with a thick white beard and a high forehead and ruddy cheeks.

He himself quit the Social Democratic party years ago out of protest over the labor reforms. He bemoans the loss of a more social-market oriented party, one that would still have a place for someone like Mr. Richter and himself.

Instead, Mr. Jabs said the employment office sends people who can’t get jobs elsewhere to help at the food bank, where in addition to their food rations they are given just one euro — of symbolic pay.

The government then subsidizes the rest of their income, counting them as employed.

Many of these people lack the desire to work, Mr. Jabs said, and he sees the money spent on trying to train them as wasted.

“Sending them to six seminars on how to apply for a job will not increase their chances of getting a job,” he said.

Mr. Jabs said he was unconvinced that anyone on Germany’s political stage had a solution for the poor he serves.

“We have the impression that the numbers are increasing,” Mr. Jabs said. “Regardless of who builds the next government, we are preparing for that.”

They especially include rising numbers of elderly, one of the fastest growing groups facing poverty.

Over the past 12 years, their numbers have doubled at the food bank, Mr. Jabs said, and he knows many more who are too proud to seek assistance.

Many of them are women, who stayed home to raise their families instead of working and saving for retirement.

Heidi, 76, is one of them. Her monthly pension, plus a welfare supplement, amounts to €705, or about $840, which has to cover rent, utilities, food and clothing.

“What has been forgotten is our generation of women, those of us between 70 to 80, who made it through the war and started our families with little or nothing,” she said, asking that her last name not be used because she was ashamed.

“We were taught to make do with what we had and raise our children,” she said. “But now we find ourselves with nothing.”

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