German paradox: Berliners poorer than rest of country

Germany may be Europe’s leading economy, but residents of its capital are struggling to find jobs. Many are having trouble putting food on the table and are surviving on government handouts.

One-year-old Raphael is too little to understand the economic strain his family is under. It is not food, but bills and paperwork for public assistance that are piling up on his parents’ kitchen table.

“It’s a fight for survival – that’s what we are facing here. Dining out, going to the cinema, buying shoes, we can’t do that,” Berlin resident Emilia Bryn says.

Emilia has been out of work for longer than she’d like to admit. She gets welfare in the form of a government-subsidized job. Adding more pressure to the situation, her fiancé just got laid off.

The family is living on roughly 1,400 euros a month in state aid. After rent and utilities, there isn’t much left for food or for diapers for Raphael.

Emilia would like to reach out to her mom for help, but she is receiving welfare too.

What hurts even more are the long, low-paid hours Emilia spends away from her son. He sobs when she leaves for work in the morning and is asleep when she returns in the evening.

Stories like theirs may be on the rise in Berlin, according to a study by the Bertelsmann Foundation. People who live in the capital are at higher risk of poverty than any other state in Germany.

In fact, Berlin is Europe’s only capital whose population earns less than the rest of its nation.

One in five is partially- or fully-dependent on the state, and unemployment there is at 14.5 per cent. Compare that with the southern state of Bavaria at 5.5 per cent.

The study points to several causes for the disparity: a higher proportion of single parents, a higher percentage of those from migrant backgrounds and their segregation in society and consequently the workforce – and the legacy of the Cold War.

“Because [Berlin] didn’t have any chance to build up any strong industrial activities that could go along with a sizable number of jobs,” Thorsten Hellmann from the Bertelsmann Foundation explains.

However, he insists that it is possible for Berlin to make gains in the mid- to long-run because of its investments in innovation and the caliber of students and researchers its universities attract.

But for people like Emilia, Berlin’s potential is doing little to provide for the present.