In accordance with Article 26 and 27 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, every child has a right to grow up in social security and with an appropriate standard of living. This is not the reality for an increasing number of children and adolescents in Germany. Despite economic growth and declining unemployment, child poverty has been on the rise for years. This has serious consequences for the rest of the children’s lives and fulfilment of a number of children’s rights, including education, health development, social participation or opportunities for involvement.
Child poverty ties in directly with parent poverty. As such, children living in families at high risk of poverty are particularly affected: Some 40 percent of families with a solo parent, and around 30 percent of families with three or more children, are considered poor, as are nearly 30 percent of children with so-called migration backgrounds.
Around 3 million children and adolescents currently live off government benefits to survive, with more than 1.6 million doing so even though their parents are gainfully employed. They receive additional benefits under Volume II of the German Social Code, housing benefits or child allowance. In addition, there are many families who do not apply for benefits for shame of stigmatisation, due to cumbersome bureaucracy, or because they are not even aware of their social entitlements. The number of unreported cases of child poverty is thus high. The German federal government states that around 30 to 50 percent of those entitled to benefits under Volume II of the Social Code, and indeed 60 to 70 percent of those entitled to a child allowance, do not apply for benefits. The number of those not claiming the Education and Participation Package (Bildungs- und Teilhabepaket) is sometimes even higher.
But even with government benefits, the minimum subsistence level, including physical needs for clothing, food and shelter, as well as education and social participation, is not guaranteed for all children.
The method for calculating minimum subsistence has for many years been met with criticism. Experts believe social benefits are too low – in view of the inadequate statistical basis for children’s needs, the additional inclusion of unreported poor households, and the arbitrary removal of certain budget expenditure items. The statutory rates for children are also calculated based on an already poor comparison group. The minimum subsistence level under social law is thus extremely tight. The spin-off into the Education and Participation Package, which fewer people claim, means education and participation are not guaranteed.
The minimum subsistence level for children is massively undercut if the already very tight social benefits are further reduced due to sanctions. Much of these reductions affect children and adolescents. In some cases, entire benefits are cut, and this can have far-reaching consequences for families in the form of power blackouts or the threat of homelessness. As such, the German federal government’s Children’s Commission announced back in 2017 its intention to cut sanctions in order to reduce child poverty. The German Federal Constitutional Court is currently assessing the constitutionality of sanctions.
Although a lot of expertise exists on the topic of poverty, and, by virtue of the 5th Poverty and Wealth Report from 2017 and the overall evaluation of marriage and family-based benefits from 2013, the German federal government has extensive knowledge of the extent of child poverty and the need for initial target-group-specific reforms to reduce it, no political priority is ever given to combating child poverty. And children and families are feeling this: 90 percent of children and adolescents, and 73 percent of adults, believe policymakers do not focus enough on the issue of child poverty.
Apart from very few exceptions, the German federal government’s actions in recent years have been limited to constitutionally required adjustments: It increased child tax deductions, and did the same for child benefit, but failed to close the gap between this tax relief and the child benefit amount. As the child benefit is offset against other benefits such as basic benefits and child support for low-income earners, poor families do not benefit from an increase. The German federal government similarly adjusted the statutory rates for children on a rotational basis, but did not make any changes to the much-criticised calculation method. The Education and Participation Package was only adjusted in 2019 as part of the so-called ‘Strong Families Act’ (‘Starke-Familien-Gesetz’), thereby increasing the contribution paid out for school supplies (among other things) and abolishing own contributions for midday meals.
This same act has also increased the child support for low-income families from 170 to 185 euros, and will in future peg this to the actual minimum subsistence level. The pay-out, however, will regrettably still not be automatic, which is why an extremely small number of people are once again expected to claim it. The 2017 broadening of the advance on maintenance payments (Unterhaltsvorschuss) was an important step for solo parents and their children, who are a group particularly at risk of poverty; the broadening saw the tight age limit and maximum receipt period abolished.
Given the rising number of children in poverty, however, the measures taken to date do not suffice to combat this. There needs to be a well coordinated, interdisciplinary, nationwide strategy tackling child poverty, which includes a reform of monetary benefits, preventive approaches, and reinforced social infrastructure – from child day-care centres to schools to recreation.
- The National Coalition Germany recommends that the UN Committee call on the German federal government to
- 106. Focus more on children’s actual needs and rights when determining benefits to uphold a minimum subsistence level, and involve children and adolescents in the calculation process;
- 107. Pool the many existing child-related benefits, and guarantee financial subsistence support as an independent entitlement for every child, paid out automatically;
- 108. Abolish the Education and Participation Package in its current form, and establish a ruling whereby the flat amounts previously contained therein are incorporated into the pooled financial subsistence support for children, as well as ensure further benefits – such as private tutoring or free lunches – are provided through the institutions attended by children;
- 109. Abolish the sanctions established in Volume II of the German Social Code against families with underage children;
- 110. Promote the establishment and expansion of additional services for all children in the areas of education, recreation, sport and culture;
- 111. Enhance disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and ensure social services, facilities and educational institutions in these neighbourhoods are particularly well staffed, so as not to compound the disadvantages suffered by children living in poverty.