Over 2 million German children at risk of poverty

Despite a decline from last year's figures, the risk of social exclusion is still "scandalously high". Reports of risks to child welfare are also increasing.

Politicians blame chronic under-staffing and failure to commit to a universal child support system for the increasing risks to many children's welfare.
Politicians blame chronic under-staffing and failure to commit to a universal child support system for the increasing risks to many children's welfare.imago images/Ute Grabowsky

Berlin-2.1 million children in Germany are at risk of falling into poverty and social exclusion, new figures from the Federal Statistical Office show. This corresponds to a share of 15 per cent of the country's children in 2019 - down from 17.3 per cent in 2018. That share is relatively low compared to other EU countries - but poverty researcher Christoph Butterwegge says the development is still cause for concern.

"When you consider that in 2019 Germany was in its tenth year of an economic upswing, the risk of poverty for children and young people is still scandalously high," Butterwegge told the Berliner Zeitung. This meant that whilst increases in the "child supplement" (Kinderzuschlag, not to be confused with Kindergeld, the "child benefit" that all parents receive) or the "Strong Families Act", which increased financial support for single parent and low income families, had lifted some above the poverty line, they were still at risk of poverty.

The below table shows how Germany compares to other European nations in terms of what proportion of its under-18s are at risk of poverty. Romania tops the table with 36 per cent, while Slovenia has the lowest share with 12 per cent. 

Corona expected to worsen child poverty

For Butterwegge, the German government has been determined only to achieve "statistical success in the fight against family poverty" with some of the measures it has pursued. For example, access to the child supplement, which is intended to prevent parents from having to rely on unemployment benefit (Hartz IV) because of their children, has been simplified and increased from €170 to €185 per child. Single mothers have been among those to benefit from this, and some of them are therefore no longer included in the Hartz IV statistics. But their children's material situation and social disadvantages have hardly changed. Butterwegge also predicts that child poverty will be exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Norbert Müller, spokesman on child policy for Die Linke in the Bundestag, agrees. "Due to the massive economic upheavals caused by the corona pandemic, it is to be expected that significantly more children will fall into poverty again," he told the Berliner Zeitung. He is calling for the introduction of a more straightforward child allowance system and has criticised the governing CDU/CSU-SPD coalition for rejecting proposals from Die Linke and the Greens. The SPD is actually also in favour of such a system, but has been unable to implement one. 

"Tinkering with the existing systems in recent years has not met expectations. We have to start systematically turning our family support system upside down," Ekin Deligöz, child policy spokeswoman for the Greens in the Bundestag, told the Berliner Zeitung. She also stressed the importance of providing better protection for children, especially during the corona pandemic - and not just from poverty.

Child welfare more under threat than ever

According to the Federal Statistical Office, the number of cases of child welfare endangerment has risen continuously since 2012, reaching more than 150 a day. For both 2018 and 2019, the statisticians recorded an annual increase of 10 per cent to 55,000 cases last year. More than half the children affected have been neglected, and many are victims of psychological (32 per cent) and physical abuse (27 per cent). Most of the reports filed with the youth welfare offices that a child's welfare is at risk come from persons or institutions from outside the child's home environment. This is now significant cause for concern, because these parties are restricted in their work due to the corona pandemic.

"The steady increase in the number of cases of child welfare endangerment is alarming," Matthias Seestern-Pauly, FDP spokesman on child policy in the Bundestag, told the Berliner Zeitung. He fears that the current corona situation will lead to a further increase in case numbers. "That is precisely why a guarantee of education and care is important during this crisis."

Deligöz backs this proposal, and says there is another issue that also needs considering: "Many youth welfare offices have been working at the limits of their capacities for a long time. Without additional resources, it will be difficult for them to intensify their preventive work during the crisis."

The below table shows what proportions of Germany's under-18s are considered at risk in terms of social factors, education or financial prospects, depending on their background. A dramatic 59 per cent of youths from single parent families fall into at least one category, as do 47 per cent of those with an immigrant background - compared to 17 per cent among those without.

SPD wants more staff for youth welfare offices

The SPD wants to tackle the problem of under-staffing. "We want all institutions that bear responsibility for children to be provided with the best possible personnel and financial resources," Sönke Rix, family policy spokesperson for the SPD in the Bundestag, told the Berliner Zeitung. This applies in particular to the youth welfare offices, he said.

Despite the current crisis, it is important that children do not lose contact with caregivers and friends. "Early on, we made an effort at all levels to ensure that playgrounds, daycare centres and schools remain open for as long as possible," Rix says. In the long term, he argues, core elements of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child should be incorporated into the German constitution.

Markus Weinberg, family policy spokesman for the CDU parliamentary group, advises examining the reasons for the increase in cases of child welfare endangerment. "In my view there are three different explanations: an increase in the number of cases, an increase in the number of reports or an increase in children being taken into custody resulting from a lowering of the threshold for intervention by the youth welfare offices," he told the Berliner Zeitung. For example, he claims that youth welfare offices often take children away from their families earlier than necessary in order to avoid making mistakes.

CDU pushing for preventative measures

However, Weinberg added that child protection systems must urgently be strengthened further in light of the rising numbers. "We need to sensitise and motivate families to accept low-threshold assistance before escalations such as violence, neglect or abuse occur, making it necessary to remove children from their families," he says.

More criticism for the government's actions came from the AfD. "It is the state that is currently endangering child welfare through isolation and compulsory masks," Martin Reichardt, the party's family policy spokesman in the Bundestag, told the Berliner Zeitung. His parliamentary group is therefore demanding that all corona measures be examined for their effects on child wellbeing.

This article was adapted from the original German for the English edition by Elizabeth Rushton.