May 22, 2011

GERMANY: Experts call for urgent reforms as more and more elderly Germans slip into poverty

BONN / Deutsche Welle / Society / May 22, 2011

Old-age poverty already affects over 7 million people in Germany. Experts are warning that the number of elderly people living below the poverty line will increase. Social organizations are demanding action.

Public transport costs have risen in the last two years,
meaning even bus fares can be prohibitive

Boiled potatoes and mashed carrots. In the last week of every month, that's all that's left to eat for German pensioner Beate Gräbert - all because her pension doesn't go far enough to buy anything else. In the fridge there's also a carton of out-of-date milk that she brought home from a food bank.

In Gräbert's flat in Cologne, the heating has been turned off since February - she makes do with an old jumper. The 72-year-old has been living like this for 14 years. Since that time there's been no money for anything but the bare necessities: no cinema, no theater, no holiday.

Her two children can't support her - they live hundreds of kilometers away and are out of work themselves. Her husband, who died four years ago after a long illness, was also unemployed for a decade. Gräbert was forced to care for him. After bringing up her children she took on a few low-paid jobs to get by. But they provide very little in the way of a pension.

Not just a problem in the developing world
After paying her rent for the tiny one-bedroom flat and buying the medicine she needs, Gräbert is left with around 2 euros a day to live on. The World Bank estimates that 1 billion people have to live on a similar amount worldwide. But most of them live in developing countries, not in a rich industrialized country like Germany.
According to official statistics, of the 21 million pensioners in Germany, around 10 percent are affected by poverty. But charities and trade unions say the real proportion is higher, at around 15 percent. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggests the numbers are likely to rise.

The dream of a trouble-free old age

The reasons for the increase in the poverty-stricken elderly are varied. It's not simply a problem for the long-term unemployed. Wages are falling among the working population, and at the same time the number of people earning very low wages is rising. Those low-paid jobs don't provide for sufficient pension contributions.

There is also a discrepancy between the number of people in work actively paying into the pension pot, and the number of people in retirement. It's currently 3:1. By 2030 that proportion is likely to be 1:1. The government has already raised the pension age from 65 to 67, and is considering increasing it even further.

State support for the elderly has already been cut in the last few years and is set to fall even further. Adding to the problem, social analysts estimate that more than 40 percent of elderly people live alone. The cost of traveling by public transport has risen by 28 percent in the last two years, meaning that many find it hard to get out of the house.

Fighting for rights
At the moment the Confederation of German Trade Unions, opposition parties and social charities are fighting for a minimum wage, which would be high enough to include sensible pension contributions. They're also demanding state subsidies for an adequate pension.

Some are forced to search for food in bins

The German government is discussing a minimum pension aimed at poorly-paid workers who have worked for years but don't qualify for social benefits. But a commission set up to discuss these proposals was cancelled recently. Instead there will be a "government dialogue" on the matter in the autumn.

Beate Gräbert isn't following the political debate. She doesn't have a television or a radio. "There's only ever bad news," she says. A friend brings her library books once a month, but even this small pleasure will soon be no more.

The city of Cologne has high debts and is considering closing the public library near Gräbert's flat. The pensioner says all that remains for her is to look out of the window.

Author: Wolfgang Dick / ji

Editor: Martin Kuebler

© DW 2011