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Germany social welfare ruling sees 'right' to social, cultural life

Last month a Germany social welfare ruling blocked entitlement reductions on the grounds that all citizens have a right to participate in social, cultural life.

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent / March 22, 2010

Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court declared a 2005 welfare reform package unconstitutional last month.

Sascha Schuermann/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom



A landmark court ruling has opened a battle over what social welfare model the traditionally generous German state can offer, raising questions about the balance between human dignity and the need to balance the national books.

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Last month, the federal constitutional court said that a sweeping reform established five years ago to reduce what was then seen as an overburdened welfare system was unconstitutional. The reason: It failed to ensure its 6.7 million recipients, especially children, "a dignified minimum income" and give less privileged citizens a "minimum level of participation in social, cultural, and political life."

The court gave Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition until year's end to create a better model. And it unleashed heated debate over the future of Germany's social model at a time when, from France to Greece, social unrest in Europe is widespread.

"The court said that it's not enough to have food, clothes, and a roof – people also have to be able to participate in society, otherwise they become outcasts," says Christoph Butterwegge, a poverty expert at the University of Cologne. "For the constitutional court to define social participation as a right, that's unprecedented."

Controversial reforms spark lawsuit

The controversial Hartz-IV reform has often been called Germany's boldest postwar welfare reform. It focused on pushing the jobless to find work more quickly, limiting the period during which people could collect unemployment. It was designed amid soaring unemployment – and the financial pressures of absorbing Germany's ex-communist states and a European call to make the German economy more competitive.

Some said it was a courageous step. But others condemned it as an attack on a quintessentially German principle of solidarity and social harmony, by spurring the rise of low-paying, precarious jobs.

Two families ultimately took the government to court, saying that children's benefits were too low for them to survive financially. Hartz IV merged unemployment and welfare payments, with adults receiving a "basic security" lump sum of €359 (about $490) monthly and children getting 60 to 80 percent of that. Their case went all the way to the Supreme Court – and won.

Calculating the needs of children as a percentage of the needs of adults is "arbitrary and not transparent," said court president Hans-Jürgen Papier, asking the government to redesign the system so families can live "according to minimum humane standards."

Germany's effort to rein in its expensive social welfare system has been ruled unconstitutional. How it now moves to balance its books as well as meet what it considers basic human needs could set a model for others.