a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Discussing German poverty at "le sofa blog"

Posted by Thomas Nephew on January 31st, 2005

Peter Praschl of the German “le sofa blog” recently excoriated an article in the weekly German glossy periodical “Stern” titled “The true misery,” by Walter Wüllenweber. Run under the rubric “underclass,” the article zeroes in on one of the poorest neighborhoods in Germany: the Meerkamp quarter of Essen, a city in the rustbelt Ruhrgebiet of northwest Germany.*

The photographs give you some of the flavor of the story. A toddler sits two feet away from a huge TV screen; tattooed arms sort through a plate of junk food; a tidy, but soulless housing project dwarfs a children’s slide; a single, pregnant 35 year old smoking a cigarette stares tiredly at the camera. Wüllenweber opens with a provocative profile of German poverty:

The lowrise housing projects from the 60s are well tended. No trash, no graffiti, slides and swings stand in the autumn leaves on the large grassy areas. A battalion of dishes points to satellites. Salon-tanned girls click-clack down the sidewalks. Bluish light shines from behind the curtains. Fat guys heave themselves out of wide-tired BMWs, Audi TTs and lowrider Golfs. The housemaster sweeps up a couple of cigarette butts. “Poverty?” His laughter dies in smoky coughing fit. “I know everyone in Meerkamp. But poverty, no, not here.”

A family of four living on welfare gets about 1550 Euro a month, including rent and all services, it’s about 1840 Euro for five persons. That’s more than untrained people can earn after taxes. In Meerkamp [and other poor German neighborhoods], in the typical German underclass quarters the poor live in roomy housing with built-in kitchen, microwave, washing machine, dishwasher, cell phone, usually several TVs and VCRs. These are the findings of the German census bureau [Statistischen Bundesamtes]. Today’s underclass does not suffer want like it’s described in novels of the 19th century. But it still lives in misery.

The misery isn’t poverty of the wallet, it’s poverty of the spirit.

Praschl’s angry reaction:

Cut chocolates, cut candy, cut cigarettes, cut money wasting cellphones, cut tattoos, cut junk food, cut trash service, cut large lawns, cut slides and swings,… [18 lines later] … some arcades are OK, TV, DVD, PC, Playstation, just take everything.

The poor still have too much stuff.

Let it be said straight off that this isn’t to be some kind of “ha! they have problems, too” post. Rather, I think that the terms of the discussion the article provoked are interesting. The idea of a German underclass is one that shouldn’t surprise me by now, but it still does — as did the resulting wide-ranging discussion that the Praschl’s post and the article touched off. The first comment:

I don’t understand the “cut everything” summary here. The article doesn’t imply taking stuff away from the poor, but rather that the generation-spanning, all-encompassing lethargy it describes follows from insufficient education — and not from the economic status quo. Is it bad if STERN points out that parents are not doing right by their children if they don’t provide some way out of the cable/Xbox/cheap bar ghetto? “Invest in people’s heads, not their stomachs.” – that’s surely a supportable demand that isn’t bound to some model of social class. No?

It shouldn’t necessarily be an either/or choice, I think. Responding, Praschl (I think correctly) identified an off-putting tone to the article, a kind of wildlife documentary approach that dehumanized its subjects while purporting to care about them:

…it’s unseemly to do this. It’s unseemly to walk through a poor neighborhood, to size up the poor and write that they’re not poor because they have this or that and something else besides. It’s unseemly even if one just does it for two-thirds of the article, and then sticks on another third that there really is poverty, poverty of the spirit, poverty of education, etc. […]

It is, and this is the saddest part, the usual gaze, the gaze that one grants the lower classes, this mixture of shuddering and finger-wagging. … It’s no gaze that loves the people it claims to worry about, it’s the gaze that always just demonstrates to them that they’re idiots, it’s their own fault, and that they still have too much of the wrong stuff.**

I suppose I agree with that, and yet I think it was ultimately unfair to Wüllenweber, who I think was (also) trying to say that there was (a) not a situation of dire want here, (b) that there is nevertheless a malaise being medicated, so to speak, with consumption of all sorts, and (c) that the focus should be on how to keep poverty from becoming something being passed on to children and grandchildren. But even this impulse was suspect to some commenters, e.g.:

…but to talk about people as if they were absolutely in need of help, just because their life is different from yours or for that matter mine, that has something of the social worker about it, come now, I know better, I’ll show you the way, you’re just a little stupid, but that’s because of the environment, etc. I hate hearing that.

So what is Wüllenweber’s solution? A paragraph’s worth of experts repeats the single word “Education” over and over (a consensus so complete you almost forget to add “jobs”). And Wüllenweber describes worthy, if ad hoc, grant-supported day care and kindergarten programs that spend time with poor and/or immigrant parents to foster parenting skills, and that have shown good results. Another reader defended the article along those lines:

…there’s a lot that I’d rather have had go differently in my life. But I only had the choice to get out of there because my parents worked their hands raw on the night shift so we could go to a good school, and because we had books… I don’t know [how to fix this]. Maybe someone can calmly explain why it’s wrong to demand opportunities for those who can’t make demands themselves.

Praschl acknowledged the STERN article’s call for improved education programs, but ultimately felt the earlier sensationalization of conspicuous “underclass” consumption made the author’s and magazine’s motives suspect; at the end of the day, maybe it was just a way to peddle some smug tut-tutting to middle class subscribers:

if I were worried about inadequate education, inadequate books and all that, then I’d write about that and how to solve that. … and the [well-off] wouldn’t mutter to eachother about articles like that, because they would know after all, that an educational system for the lower classes would just [cost them a lot of money]. But that the supposedly poor are only supposedly poor… one likes to mutter that to one another, and that doesn’t cost anything.

Yet Wüllenweber didn’t exactly let the well-off off the hook in his article:

Like most cities, Essen is a divided city. The underclass lives in its quarter, Katernberg in the north. The south belongs to the chairmen of the board of the Ruhrgebiet [Ruhr region]. The upper class kids don’t need as much help from school and kindergarten as the children of Meerkamp do. That should mean: fewer teachers, fewer kindergarten teachers, fewer programs in the south, more of them in the north. “Handle inequity unequally,” [Essen development director] Wermker calls it. “But no politician of any party would survive taking something away from those in the south part of the city,” says Wermker.

But those comments come at the end of a long article, Praschl is right that the first impression is a different one.

The discussion seems pretty close to those here in the U.S. back in the early and mid-90s, as welfare reform ideas were kicked around and finally implemented. What’s similar is the degree of awkwardness in discussing whether there’s even a problem, the questionable empathy with the subjects of the discussion, and the suspicions and accusations swirling around the issue.

The difference may be that the impact of 1990s welfare policy reform in the US was cushioned by an economic upswing, however illusory that upswing may have been. In Germany, by contrast, this discussion takes place against a backdrop of pessimism about the economic future that has already led to highly controversial reductions in unemployment compensation, the so-called Hartz IV reform. With globalization at work in Germany, too, the poor and working poor of that country will be under the gun just as they are here and everywhere. In Germany, at least, they seem to have political allies — even if those allies don’t recognize eachother, or agree what is to be done.


* I’ve also read articles describing similar hopelessness in parts of the former East Germany, for example “Even the mayor wants to leave,” Die ZEIT, 2004

** Incidentally, the idea of “unseemliness” rang a bell, and I soon recalled the generally unseemly discussion of hunger, obesity, and poverty at the libertarian/conservative Asymmetrical Information site (via Belle Waring).

TRANSLATION NOTES: “it’s unseemly”: “es schickt sich nicht.”

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