A line of people conveniently distanced by shopping carts queue up on a frigid winter morning outside a church on the outskirts of Berlin, the German capital. It’s two hours until it opens, but they don’t want to miss a shift in the soup kitchen, from which they will leave with a bag full of food.
They are young couples, but also retirees, who need to supplement their pension in a country in which the elderly have been impoverished in the last 15 years at a higher rate than the rest of society. Inside there is plenty of food for everyone, but the line is already around the building.
“There are many retirees and families with many children. There are also people we know from the parish who do not come because they are ashamed, but we know that their pension is very low ”, assures Christine Hoppmann, in charge of the operation of this Protestant Paul-Gerhardt church in Spandau, although in many other neighborhoods in Berlin there are similar initiatives.
The volunteers collect the surpluses that are given to them in the supermarkets and with them they prepare bags – the covid-19 forces to pack everything – for about 400 people every day.
Users generally live on social services, the so-called Hartz IV. “No one here is starving, the idea is that with the food [they collect here] they can save to be able to afford something else, to go out for coffee or go to the movies.”
Outside, in the street, an 83-year-old woman with a walker with a built-in cart waits at the first positions of the queue, who says she has come to collect food for her niece. She worked as a cleaner in the Berlin Senate and receives a pension of 720 euros, in addition to a supplement.
“Those of my generation are women who rebuilt the country in a historical moment, when the economy was weak,” says this woman who prefers not to give her name. Next to her is her 59-year-old daughter, who declares herself unable to find work in times of coronavirus.
They do not care too much about the wait and face their situation with resignation, but also with humor: “Let’s see what comes in the bag. This is like kindergarten eggs, every week a surprise ”.
Inside, a volunteer in a wheelchair organizes surprise packages and reflects on the future of this neighborhood where she has lived since the eighties. “I get the impression that in recent years the situation has worsened.”
The figures confirm it. Tafel Deutschland, the umbrella organization that brings together more than 940 food banks in the country, ensures that the trend is clear: “The proportion of older people among our users continues to grow.
That number has almost doubled since 2007, ”says Tafel Deutschland. A quarter of the users of these aids are over the retirement age. Between 2018 and 2019 alone, the number of older beneficiaries grew by 20%.
The population over 65 at risk of poverty has grown from 4.7% in 2005 to 15.7% in the last 15 years, which amounts to about 2.7 million people, according to the statistical office German. “The generation over 65 [years] in Germany faces a growing risk of poverty,” he says.
This risk of poverty is considered when their income is 60% lower than the average. In 2019, the calculation amounted to 1,074 euros per month. The convergence of the risk of poverty between the normal population and the elderly suggests that it is the latter who have benefited least from a decade of almost uninterrupted economic growth in the country.
Johannes Geyer, a researcher at the German Institute for Economic Studies (DIW) puts this growth in context. “In the last 10 years we have seen a strong growth in poverty among the elderly, but it must be taken into account that it started from a very low level compared to the young population.
Now it has become equal ”, explains the economist. The increase in poverty is partly due to the calculations resulting from the pension reform, but it is also related to the growth in unemployment until 2005. Many retirees who spent some time unemployed in those years now see that stoppage reflected in their work. computation of their pensions.
Added to this, according to Geyer, is the increase in low-wage jobs since the late 1990s, which also ends up having an impact on the pension.
“The elderly are the fastest growing group in poverty in Germany,” agrees Christoph Butterwegge, a political scientist specializing in social policy at the University of Cologne.
This expert blames the reforms of the unemployment and aid system that the Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder launched in the early 2000s, the so-called Agenda 2010. “Subcontracting and precariousness increased and that means that in the end people have pensions lower, “says Butterwegge.
They are the losers of a labor market that, until the outbreak of the coronavirus, did not stop registering historical lows of unemployment in a country in which demography predicts a worsening of the situation.
The progressive aging of the German population predicts an increase in poverty among the elderly in the coming years. Germany’s elderly population (83.1 million inhabitants in total) is situated, with an average of 21.5%, above the EU average (20.3%).
The increase in poverty of the elderly overlaps with the phenomenon of older workers. It’s easy to see them restocking supermarket shelves, delivering early morning newspapers, or even picking up bottles to recycle, for which they’ll give you a few pennies.
This is the case of Karl-Heinrich Fromm, who at five in the morning, while it is still night, begins to deliver newspapers with a cart through the Berlin offices. He is 68 years old, with a splint on his wrist and osteoarthritis in his knees.
This former carpenter assures that he needs to supplement his pension and that is why he distributes newspapers for 400 euros a month. His benefit amounts to 930 euros per month and he says that he is lucky, because he pays a rent for social housing in a plattenbau,the typical prefabricated buildings of the East.
Even so, you cannot afford small or large luxuries. “I haven’t been on vacation for years; I can’t afford it ”. In 1990 was the last time he traveled abroad. Fromm, with his hair cut by a brush, says that many of his friends and older acquaintances also work.
Figures from the German Statistical Office indicate that the proportion of people over 65 who work has doubled in the last ten years. If in 2009, 8% of people between 65 and 69 years old worked, in 2019, that figure reached 18%. A total of 1.1 million people over 65 have a low-paying job, according to the German employment agency.
“This is new and it is a very heterogeneous group of people. There are freelancers who simply prefer to continue working and are in good health, but there is also a new type of retiree who uses mini-jobs [with which they earn up to 450 euros per month] to get extra money without affecting their pension, “he says. Geyer.
As of January 1, 2021, the minimum allowance for retirees with low pensions comes into force in Germany.
It is a kind of basic pension approved last summer by the great government coalition (Angela Merkel’s CDU and the Social Democrats), which estimates that about 1.3 million people will benefit from it, most of them women , because it also applies to those who have cared for children or dependents.
“The vital achievements deserve recognition”, indicates the Government in the presentation of the benefit. The bitterness at the lack of recognition of some retirees in Germany is precisely what the extreme right, AfD, which focused its last extraordinary congress on pensions, aspires to capitalize on.