More than a dozen people were lining up in anxious silence at the reception counter of the JobCenter in Berlin’s Pankow district, though it was 8 am and the place had only just opened. In response to a question, a middle-aged man said, “Why am I here? Because if you don’t come when they summon you, they take away what little they give you.” He thought the JobCenter would have little to offer him, except perhaps a job that had nothing to do with his skills. An unemployed teacher had recently received a letter inviting her to apply for a job as a sales assistant in a sex shop—or be sanctioned. In response, she posted online: “I’ve put up with all sorts from my JobCenter, but this is too much,” adding that she intended to file a complaint against the agency for abuse of authority.
The mobile-advice unit of the Berlin Center for the Unemployed had set up a minibus in the parking lot. Team member Nora Freitag put a pile of brochures titled “How to defend your rights against the JobCenter” on a folding table. “This initiative was launched in 2007 by the Protestant Church,” she said. “People are distressed and feel powerless against this bureaucratic monster, which the unemployed rightly see as a threat.”
A pensioner approached. She seemed embarrassed to discuss her problems in front of strangers. Her pension was less than €500 a month—not enough to live on—so she was receiving additional benefits from her JobCenter. But even then she couldn’t make ends meet, so she had started a precarious part-time job as a cleaner, earning €340 a month net. “I’ve had a letter from the JobCenter that says I haven’t declared my income, and I have to pay back €250,” she said. “But I haven’t got the money. And I declared my income on the first day, so they must have made a mistake.” A team member took her aside to explain where to appeal and also where to file a complaint if the appeal wasn’t successful. Sometimes the team uses the minibus to discuss a problem in privacy. “That’s one of the effects of Hartz IV,” Freitag said. “Stigmatization of the unemployed is so strong that many are ashamed even to talk about their situation in front of other people.”
Hartz IV is the fourth and final part of a wide-ranging deregulation of the labor market known as Agenda 2010, which was implemented in Germany between 2003 and 2005 by the ruling Social Democratic Party–Greens coalition under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The law is named after its architect, Peter Hartz, a former personnel director at Volkswagen, and merges social-welfare benefits and benefits for those unemployed longer than a year into a single package, paid by the JobCenters. The low rate—€409 a month in 2017 for a single person—is supposed to encourage the recipients, or “customers,” to find a job as quickly as possible, no matter how badly paid or poorly matched it is to their expectations or skills. Even worse, payment of the benefits is linked to one of the most coercive monitoring systems in the European Union.
“Honest People First”
As of 2016, Hartz IV applied to nearly 6 million people, including 2.6 million officially unemployed, 1.7 million unofficially unemployed—squeezed out of the statistics by “activation measures” (training schemes, “coaching” jobs paying €1 an hour, mini-jobs, etc.)—and 1.6 million children of recipients. In a society that worships work, the recipients are often despised as lazy, or worse. In 2005, the federal economic-affairs ministry published a brochure titled “Honest People First: Fighting Abuse, Fraud and Selfishness in the Welfare State,” with a preface by the minister, Wolfgang Clement, a member of the SPD. “Biologists,” it read, “use the term ‘parasite’ to refer to an organism that obtains its nutritional needs by feeding off other living things…it would be inappropriate to apply concepts from the animal world to human beings.” The popular press, led by Bild, took up the expression “Hartz IV parasite.”