German state debates welfare reform, Wisconsin-style

Jürgen Joseph has trouble counting the number of years he was on welfare. "A long time," says the former recipient after some thought.

Unmotivated, by his own admission, Joseph didn't have to think of any alternatives. The German government - which last year spent almost $19 billion on welfare, paid his rent, water and electricity - also gave him a monthly stipend of about $360. In return, it asked almost nothing.

"There were many years when I wasn't willing to do anything to get help," Mr. Joseph says. "I gladly took the welfare."

With it, Joseph and others like him have been the scorn of politicians and citizens, who have long charged that by giving out money without requiring much accountability, the government encourages the lazy to stay on the dole.

Welfare reform is especially contentious in Germany, where citizens give an average 42 percent of their income to the government, with some of it going to support the country's almost 4 million unemployed.

This month, the debate entered a new phase when the premier of Hesse, Joseph's home state, offered a reform proposal based on Wisconsin's much-vaunted "Wisconsin Works" program.

Fresh from a trip to the US, where he met with former Wisconsin governor and current US Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, Hesse Premier Roland Koch issued the proposal with the demand that "the lazy be removed from the system." By adapting the Wisconsin philosophy that everyone must work in some capacity, Mr. Koch hopes to cut the number of work-capable welfare recipients in his state by half.

"If a whole state like Wisconsin, with a population of 5 million, has as many unemployed as just one district in Hesse, then their approach is worth a try," he said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

In particular, Koch, of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, is interested in the "contract" recipients have with the state and the penalties they face if they fail to fulfill it. It is among the topics Koch's social minister is discussing with Wisconsin officials on a trip to the state this week.

The Koch proposal has drawn approval from the general population but criticism from opposition politicians and welfare experts who accuse the premier of grandstanding. They say many of his proposed reforms already exist.

Critics also express doubts about the feasibility of the sanction-heavy Wisconsin system in Germany, which has always prided itself on helping those unable to provide themselves a reasonable life.

About two-thirds of those receiving welfare in Hesse are single mothers, children, sick people, or those too old to work, say welfare advocates.

"Welfare is supposed to help, it's not a sanction instrument," said Jürgen Maier, spokesman for a homeless and welfare aid organization in Frankfurt.

Though Mr. Maier and his colleagues say some of Wisconsin's program can be applied here, it is on the topic of punishment that the welfare philosophies of Germans and Americans diverge.

"In many big cities, like Frankfurt, the welfare office already reduces the payments of those unwilling to work," says Gert Wagner of the German Economic Institute in Berlin."What I can't see happening in Germany is that everyone will be cut off after two years."

Where Koch can perhaps help, says Maier, is in supporting programs that seek to get those on welfare or unemployment back into the mainstream workforce. The challenge, Maier adds, is not in trimming the country's welfare rolls, which statistics recently showed are on their way down, but in training the unemployed for jobs they aren't currently qualified for.

The goals of trimming welfare and filling jobs are tied to getting through to the unemployed earlier, says Alfred Bender, who works in Frankfurt's welfare office. And that is where Wisconsin's program, with its emphasis on close relationships between recipient and counselor, can benefit Germany, infamous for bureaucratic delays and red tape.

Koch must get jurisdictional permission from the federal government to change his state's welfare legislation. If that is granted, Koch hopes to get things moving within the next two or three months.

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