Tuesday, May 26, 2009

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Time | Germany is a deeply divided country in terms of income and wealth. "Poverty is on the rise," Ulrich Schneider, the head of Paritätische Gesamtverband, tells TIME. "Our poverty rates date from 2007, before the current economic crisis. Unemployment will rise this year so there's bound to be more poverty." In many towns in eastern Germany local factories have shut down and, since reunification, unemployment rates have climbed to 25% after an exodus of young people looking for work in the west — a far cry from those "blossoming landscapes" former Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised back in 1990. (Read "Kohl Wins His Way.")

Anyone who's living off less than 60% of the median household income is defined by the E.U. and the German government as living in poverty. In Germany, that's around $1,066 per month for a single person or $2,240 for a couple with one child. Some of the hardest hit by Germany's increasing poverty levels are children. It's estimated that there are more than 3 million German children living in poverty; in Berlin alone, up to 36% of all children are poor. "The gap between the rich and poor is wider than ever and more children have been plunged into poverty," says Bernd Siggelkow, a pastor who runs the Arche project in Berlin to help children in need. "People who claim state benefits are stigmatized by society and in the past children were simply forgotten by politicians."

Not surprisingly, the poverty atlas has reawakened the long-raging political debate over a national minimum wage. Germany doesn't have a general legal minimum wage and only six sectors of the economy have a statutory rate — in the construction industry, for example, the minimum pay rate is between $12.50 and $18 an hour. Union leaders and politicians have been calling for a national minimum wage of $10.50 an hour, but Chancellor Merkel and her conservative party colleagues have refused to back down, saying a minimum wage could be counterproductive as jobs that pay less than the required minimum would be cut and that could lead to higher unemployment. "More and more people are on low wages earning less than $7 an hour," says Michael Pausder, spokesman for the VDK, an association that promotes equality for people in need.

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