Labour and Social Affairs Minister Ursula von der Leyen is introducing the programme in response to a ruling by Germany's Constitutional Court in February that Hartz IV rates relating to children were wrongly calculated and unconstitutional.
The card system, based on a similar scheme operating in Stuttgart, aims to increase the educational and extracurricular opportunities for children from welfare-dependent families rather than simply pouring more money into the system.
Hartz IV rates must be recalculated by the end of the year, according to the court ruling. From January, rates for jobless adults and their dependent children will be calculated separately. About two million children and adolescents live in families dependent on Hartz IV, 1.7 million of whom are under the age of 15.
The electronic chip cards will be loaded with special lines of credit: one for education needs such as extra tuition, one for school meals, one for school materials such as books and satchels, one for extracurricular activities such as cultural and sporting pursuits.
The precise amounts of credit needed for each child will be decided case-by-case by staff in job centres, who will also hand out the cards. The calculations will be made in co-operation with parents, schools and local clubs.
The voucher card programme will be piloted in several regions during the first half of next year. A full roll-out is expected in 2012.
The southwestern city of Stuttgart has already conducted a similar scheme – though one that is not tied to Hartz IV. There, children under 16 from families with incomes under €60,000 a year, along with families with more than three children, receive cards with credit of €60.
The plan is expected to cost the federal government about €500 million per year.
Many states have, however, stated misgivings about the plan, which must pass through the upper house, the Bundesrat.
States led by the centre-left Social Democrats favour free activities run by local municipalities. Chancellor Angela Merkel's Bavarian conservative colleagues, the Christian Social Union, have warned the scheme could become a “bureaucratic monster.”