Böhmer on Monday called for a targeted political and economic effort to offer these 1.9 million welfare recipients better career prospects this year, but also said that some immigrants need to be more willing to integrate into German society.
“The high number of immigrants who get Hartz IV is dramatic,” she said, explaining that while language, education, and training are important, many on the dole already have qualifications from abroad that aren't recognised in Germany.
“A half million academics alone who have immigrated can't bring their expertise in because their degree isn't accepted,” she said. “Anyone who describes immigrants as patently unwilling to work is wrong.”
While Böhmer denied that immigrants are targeting Germany as a destination to take advantage of the social system, officials in cities with high immigrant populations said there was rampant abuse of the benefits.
The immigration commissioner for Berlin's multi-cultural Neukölln district Arnold Mengelkoch cited examples including one woman and her daughter who had apparently managed to get an apartment paid for by the state, then moved back to Lebanon to live off both their Hartz IV benefits and rent from subletting their home in Germany.
“How can a state have so little control?” he asked. “Child benefit increases, child care money and perhaps higher Hartz IV benefits – they're laughing at us.”
But solutions are difficult when welfare becomes a social norm, he said.
“When everyone in the building lives off Hartz IV, it's less embarrassing, and the pressure to get out is even less,” he added, suggesting cuts to benefits for those who don't cooperate with government rules. He also mooted starting a micro-credit programme to help those with few qualifications get ahead.
But their job prospects can appear grim. A recent study by the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) found that of 1,000 job applications for internships suiting economics students, those with Turkish names received 14 percent fewer positive responses.
Often it's educational shortcomings that mean limited chances for many immigrants to escape welfare, IAB spokesperson Holger Seibert said. On the periphery of every debate remains the “classic incentive problem,” he said.
The question remains, “Do I go to work for €5 per hour or stay home for €5,” he said.