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Should people without children be forced to pay more tax in Germany?

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Should people without children be forced to pay more tax in Germany?
Is Germany's social security system sustainable? Photo: DPA
16:36 CET+01:00
As a care crisis looms, Health Minister Jens Spahn thinks people without children should contribute more to the German social security system. We spoke to an expert to find out why and what it all means.

We’ve all been there: the first time you open your payslip in Germany can come as quite a shock. Why? Well, because a big chunk of your wages is taken away in the form of tax and social security contributions.

This is, of course, a good thing in many ways because it should (hopefully) mean that we live in a country with good public services and that we’ll be provided with excellent health care when we need it, a pension in future and long term nursing care.

But there are problems ahead.

German society is getting older and that means there’s going to be a bigger burden on care services, which are already struggling to cope. At the other end of the scale, people are having less babies, although family friendly policies, like paid parental leave, do seem to be having a positive impact on the birth rate.

A sustainable system?

All this begs the question - who will pay for us all when we’re older if there aren’t enough people to contribute to the social security system?

Spahn, a politician who is vying to replace Angela Merkel as head of the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) when she steps down in December, last week tried to tackle this issue, which resulted in a bit of a frenzy across German media.

In an editorial piece for the daily Südwest Presse newspaper, Spahn said people who don't have children should pay more towards care and pension insurance than parents do. He also said the current system was unsustainable. 

Spahn said that 3.3 million people currently receive long-term care insurance (Pflegeversicherung) benefits, 1.7 million people already live with dementia and 300,000 more are diagnosed every year, adding that the task to deal with it all is "growing".

"In the pay-as-you-go system, the elderly receive money from young people - even if they are the children of others," Spahn said.

Currently, there is no difference in the amount of pension tax (Rentenversicherung) that people pay, but there’s a clause which means people without kids already pay slightly more to the Pflegeversicherung.

Those without children between the ages of 23 and 64 contribute 0.25 percentage points more towards long -term care insurance than parents do.

Spahn said that was the way it should be, but said the amount could "be more”, adding, “so that there is still enough money after 2030 when the baby boomers retire”.

"Parents raise future contributors and secure the system for the future," said Spahn.

Health Minister Jens Spahn. Photo: DPA

He said he spoke as someone who was "a person without children” and "willing to contribute more financially to the sustainability of the system" at a time when it was facing difficulties.

“As of January 1st, 2019, we will again have to increase the contribution to long-term care insurance significantly by 0.5 points,” he added.  “At the same time, everyone feels that we will need even more money for more nursing staff, better payment and support at home.”

Are Spahn’s comments a dig at people who don’t have children? Or is he just being realistic?

SEE ALSO: Job talk: German social security payments

Future tax payers

Patrick Ott, a tax expert for internationals in Germany, said the idea behind Spahn's comments is that if you raise children then you are already contributing to “potential nursing care through family members”.

“So by doing that you basically ease the financial burden on the society and the Pflegeversicherung insurance,” he told The Local.

“If you should require long-term nursing care, at least in the lower levels of care, then children usually step in and take care of that.

“That is obviously far less expensive for the state because if you don’t have any children you’ll need to have medical services take care of that.”

But it goes further. There’s a general understanding in Germany that if you have children then you’re contributing a huge thing to society: future taxpayers.

“The next generation pays into the public pension and social welfare system so by having children you’re taking care of the system actually working,” said Ott.

“And if you don’t have children then you don’t or can’t do that, and that’s why you should have to pay a bit of a higher contribution: that’s the lawmakers' rationale behind that.”

Political opponents rallied against Spahn on this issue.

Employment Minister Hubertus Heil, of the Social Democrats, said it was "a weird idea" that aimed to "punish people without children, especially since childlessness is in many cases involuntary".

But Spahn said Germany needed to make it "fair for all generations" and said the debate needed to be opened on "how we remain a human society, how we maintain our social institutions, if every third person in Germany is over 60 years old - and less than a fifth are younger than 20."

SEE ALSO: Is it worthwhile for expats in Germany to have an offshore pension plan?

A changing population

There is some debate over how Germany will change over the coming decades. Most experts in recent years have predicted that the population will fall dramatically.

Analysis by the federal statistics office (Destatis) reported in 2015 that the German population could drop by more than 10 million over the next 40 years. Germany currently currently has roughly 82.3 million residents.

But a report by demographics experts at the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW) said in 2017  that the country's population will grow to 83 million by the year 2035.

“The long-expected decrease in the German population clearly isn't going to happen in the coming decades,” the IW report stated, citing a growing birth rate and sizeable immigration as the two main factors behind the unexpected prediction.

However, the government is still concerned about the future population and is keen to encourage more immigration partly to address the demographic problems, such as the low birth rate, and partly to address skilled labour shortages.

The social security system in Germany is "based on the following generations paying through their contributions for those who are then in retirement or social welfare needs,” said Ott, who works for  Chambervelt Rooselain and CIE ltd.

Ott stressed it was different to other countries, such as in the U.S where people can pay into retirement plans such as the 401(K), and they “see the actual value of the money, it’s a tangible account for you”.

“In Germany If you pay into public pension while you’re an employee you don’t have such an account,” said Ott. Instead you “build up a right” to draw a pension in retirement and how much you receive depends on how much you contribute.

“The money is then paid back when you retire by those younger and working and paying contributions,” said Ott.

“This situation highly depends on a demographic development where there is at least always equal numbers of contributors in the future to pay for those who retire.”

Photo: DPA

Ott said since the demographic situation in Germany is a negative one, it’s clear that in future people will be forced to pay much more in pension and social welfare contributions “because they have to bear a higher burden for those who are in retirement and long term care”.

“Currently you have basically three employees paying public pension contributions for one person in retirement. In the next 30/40 years that could well change 2 to 1 or 1 to 1 and then it gets more complicated,” said Ott.

Government is panicking

So it makes sense that politicians are looking for solutions to this looming problem. Why not change the way the whole system works?

Ott said the social security system is so ingrained in German life that it’s unlikely it will be completely reformed.

But attracting young people to Germany could be key for the future to avoid a collapse.

“As it is right now unless Germany really understands the need for a positive migration in Germany, bringing in younger people from the outside,” added Ott, "then in 30 to 40 years the German public pension/social welfare system will come very close to a collapse or people will become unable to pay for it.”

What does Pflegeversicherung or long term care insurance actually provide?

The idea of long-term nursing care insurance suggests that if we need to go into a care home facility or receive 24 hour care, then everything will be covered. Is that the case?

“Yes and no,” said Ott. You are covered but not fully, he explained.

“You will have to pay for about half of the 24/7 care that's required. Which means that most people have a gap in their financing for the future.”

This is a problem for many people and can be a huge financial burden for couples. If you’re married and your spouse needs extra care or has to move into a care home, the spouse needs needs to contribute to if the patients’ insurance, income and assets don’t cover the costs.

On top of this, Ott said, is that if parents can not pay for the long-term care insurance then their children are liable to step in and provide financial assistance. The government usually pays for it first but they will chase up children to pay, said Ott.

“A lot of Germans and expats don’t know this,” he added.

Ott said if you’re planning to stay in Germany long-term then this is something you should discuss with your family.

“Families should protect their own children by setting up an additional private nursing care insurance that covers this gap," said Ott. “It’s really important for people to put that on the agenda.”

It's clear that Germany has a care crisis on its hands and will need to look at how the social security system can work in future. At least Spahn has fuelled the debate and provided food for thought, even if his ideas are unpopular.

What do you think? Leave a comment and let us know.

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Roger Brady - 17 Nov 2018 22:52
Taxation without representation? Now where has that been tried before, and how well did it end?
Paul F - 18 Nov 2018 01:01
Surely those with children should pay more, as they use more natural resources, have free education and all other manner of benefits bestowed upon them. Why should people who cannot, often through no fault of their own, have to subsidise those that can and often do, have more than they can afford!
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