The ‘Zeche Minister Stein’ coal mine in Dortmund-Eving, Germany used to extract up to two million tons of anthracite coal at its peak. It was shut down in March 1987. A lot has changed since then.
The Ruhr Region used to be the heart of Germany’s coal and steel industry and was considered by many to be the driving force behind the German economic miracle.
Today, it is one of the country’s poorest areas. Unemployment is about 11 percent, compared with the German average of about 6.8 percent.
The industrial idyll no longer exists. One in five is at risk of poverty, according to the charity Deutsche Paritätische Wohlfahrtsverband in its 2012 report on poverty.
Dortmund, at the heart of the Ruhr Region, is home to 580,000 people.
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Birgit Zoerner, head of the labour, health and social affairs department, explained the reason for the rising poverty rates: “This region is affected by what we call ‘structural change’. It’s led to a shifting in the demand for the industrial workforce. Traditional work places don’t exist anymore, and the unskilled work sector has disappeared, leading to a relatively high unemployment rate in the Ruhr Region. For me this is the main reason for rising poverty rates. There’s a direct link.”
Dortmund’s local poverty rate is 24 percent, compared with an average of 15 percent across Germany. The charity Deutsche Paritätische Wohlfahrtsverband says that the development of poverty is no longer linked to Germany’s economic development.
In 2011, German gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 3.9 percent, but poverty did not decrease. On the contrary, it rose by 4.1 percent. The German poverty rate used to be linked to economic growth: more growth, less poverty, but that is no longer the case.
But what exactly is poverty?
Gunther Niermann, President of ‘Deutscher Paritätischer Wohlfahrtsverband’ in the Dortmund region told euronews: “Poverty means that people cannot take part in society. There are figures that define poverty throughout Europe. If people have a monthly income of less than about 850 euros, they are poor. This is an figure that’s been calculated. But it’s not just that. While poverty is about taking part in society – or not taking part – it is also about opportunity. In Germany we say that everyone has equal opportunities, but in reality not everyone has the same chance to succeed.”
A 53-year-old woman, who gave the name of ‘Dana’ first came to Germany from the former Yugoslavia with her parents 40 years ago. Since losing her job, she relies on charity food handouts. After paying her bills, she only has 190 euros a month to live on.
She told euronews: “That is unfortunately very little, because food and everything is getting more expensive. I can’t afford to do anything like go to the cinema or to the theatre. Life is cruel. Now I am forced to go to the ‘Tafel’ charity for food. I have no choice. That’s very difficult. I’ve recently been rejected for a job I applied for and I was really down and depressed for three days. For me personally, it’s very upsetting and I really can’t handle it. I don’t feel like a human being, I feel like half a human. What keeps me alive is my ability to think a little more positively these days, before I wasn’t able to. But I can handle it a little better, thanks to psychological help.”
Euronews spoke with Steffen Kanitz, head of the Christian Democrat CDU party in Dortmund and Bundestag candidate. He gave us his opinion of the minimum wage: “I believe that the minimum wage does little to help avoid poverty. We can look to France to see the proof. The French minimum wage is about 9.50 euros per hour. The poverty rate there is much higher than in Germany.
“This must have something to do with the period of good economic development in Germany, especially with creating jobs subject to social insurance contributions . But some of the problem is that North Rhine-Westphalia is not linked to what is going on in the rest of Germany,” he said.
There is a well-known building in Nordstadt, one of Germany’s poorest urban areas, which is locally knows as the ‘Horror House.’ It has 100 apartments over 18 floors – all empty. The building has been condemned by the town and is waiting demolition. Nobody wants to live in this neighbourhood and those who can afford to leave do so.
In the past, a lot of mining and steel workers lived here, but not any more. Today, the area is home to 54,000 people. 44 percent are immigrants and 27 percent are unemployed. Drug dealing, alcohol abuse and prostitution are rife. How can people get out of such urban decay and poverty?
Professor Ute Fischer at Dortmund University of Applied Sciences and Arts has an unusual idea that is gaining in popularity: the so-called ‘Unconditional Basic Income’. That is 800 euros for everybody, with no conditions or any service in return.
“For me the Unconditional Basic Income is a better investment in the future than any social welfare aid because unemployment benefit is not a normal situation. It’s considered normal to be working and competitive. That’s according to a government report on poverty. It’s cynical to say you must be competitive. It is also cynical to define a citizen as ‘working’. An investment into the future that will have a positive effect should not be considered unusual. Everybody should be treated equally and told: ‘You’re valuable, it is good that you’re here. Do something with your life, play your part in society’,” she said.
On the other hand Birgit Zoerner, a Dortmund city councillor with the SPD party, prefers to fight poverty by getting rid of long-term unemployment.
“To me, it’s obvious: we can only abolish long-term unemployment when we get more public sector jobs on a grand scale. You know that the astronomics industry is 100 percent funded by grants and subsidies? Society widely accepts this as the norm. We need the same level of enthusiasm and acceptance for abolishing long-term unemployment,” she told euronews.
In Germany, where the economy continues to grow, it seems that the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.