The government's long-awaited announcement on the Hartz IV reforms has divided Germany along political lines. So it is with the nation's media.
Conservatives are praising the meagre €5-per-month rise as an acknowledgement that Germany simply cannot afford to subsidise long-term unemployment. Liberal papers, meanwhile, see the announcement as plain heartlessness.
“Can you feed a child on €80 a month?” the left-wing taz asked. “Does €300 a year suffice to replace an adolescent's jacket, jumper, pants and shoes, which they'll outgrow again in the blink of an eye?
“We have to have a debate about such questions. Instead these questions have been sacrificed on the altar of budget discipline.”
The centre-left Süddeutsche Zeitung condemned not just the size of the rise, but the dismissive attitude the government took towards the poor in shoving the change through without consultation.
It pointed out that the government had spent considerably more time and effort taking soundings from the energy industry in coming to its decision to extend the lifetime of the nation's nuclear reactors.
“The 'black-yellow' conservative coalition apparently regards the 6.7 million Hartz IV recipients as lesser citizens who can be fobbed off with lesser policies.
“Democracy is a community whose future is shaped in co-operation. In co-operation! The coalition's conduct during the adjustment of Hartz IV demonstrates that they put little value on co-operation with the poor in this country.”
But the conservative daily Die Welt found considerable encouragement in what it saw as a shifting attitude away from the destructive idea of welfare money as something-for-nothing.
“It's not the banking and financial crisis that has brought our states to the brink of bankruptcy, but the welfare state,” the paper wrote. “For this leads paradoxically to disputes, stagnation and division because no state can replace the positive connection of family and work – much less the freedom and self-reliance that are the motor of any society.”
Society was built on work, the paper wrote, noting that 56 percent of Germans are against the increase to Hartz IV money, according to a new poll.
“That is an encouraging sign. The state has nationalized the underclass – taking on all of its life risks. It gives, without asking for anything in return. That cannot be good.”
Business daily Financial Times Deutschland read a political subtext into the announcement, noting that the government is eager to appear more decisive and active since the lull of the summer break, during which its popularity reached record lows.
The paper described the Hartz IV rise as “puny” but acknowledged that it was a reasonable calculation, given the constitutional court decision that sparked the review found fault not with the rates themselves, but the lack of transparency in calculating them.
“Sure, a strong rise, such as those being demanded by the opposition and welfare groups, would have pleased the 6 million Hartz IV recipients. But the state must not only justify itself to them, but also to millions of low-income earners,” it wrote.
“Hartz IV is not there to give anyone a carefree life, rather only to cover essential living costs. One must have doubts about whether it is also there to pay for cigarettes and alcohol. Excluding these not only has the desired effect for the coalition by lowering the overall rates of the standard payments. It also appears to their constituency as tough on supposed freeloaders – even if the drinking behaviour and cigarette consumption of the unemployed doesn't change.
“Only more jobs can do that.”
Centrist Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel wrote that although the government says it can't afford more and polls show some 70 percent of Germans are against increases to welfare benefits, current payments are mercilessly small.
“It is relatively insignificant whether it's five, 10 or 20 euros more, because at €359, €364 or €375 per month a good life is hardly possible,” the paper said.
While Hartz IV was designed to discourage long-term unemployment, and has done so with relative success, it has also created a sector of low-wage workers willing to work at any price. This may have benefited the economy in the short term, but a massive shortage of skilled workers is set to put an end to this, the paper warned, urging a change in both industrial and social policies.
“State aid should allow a dignified life that includes social participation. And it should also optimise chances to break out of the system of welfare benefits,” the paper wrote, adding that this would mean higher taxes for wealthier citizens.
“Because temporary workers don't make world export champions. And cuts to Hartz IV make the social system unjust,” the paper added.