Living at the subsistence level: “I only see the bigger picture”

Inflation is approaching the eight percent mark. Few people feel the price increase as much as those affected by poverty. Aid organizations reach their limits – the Arche in Berlin has never seen so many people seeking help. Three women talk about their fear of winter.

When Romy gets up early on this Thursday morning, he only thinks of one thing: the sea. I want to feel the cold water on my skin and listen to the waves of the Baltic Sea. The sound of the sea calms her down. Less than five minutes from the shelter where she spent the night, she can already touch the salt water. The beach is empty, only a few seagulls and a few naked tourists get lost in the vast grounds while Romy strolls along the promenade. She enjoys a brief moment of peace before the chaos of everyday life engulfs her.

Only a few hours later he returns to the Arche in Berlin Hellersdorf. Her eyes light up as she talks about that special hour at the beach for her. She talks excitedly with her hands and blushes on her cheeks. When she calms down, she looks carefully out the relief organization’s kitchen window. Romy knows the area well. She has been coming here with her children for over ten years – since she got divorced, she has returned from Norway to Germany and suddenly became a single mother. Since she is on sick leave, she was given Hartz IV.

Die Arche offers all kinds of support for people experiencing poverty: from tutoring for children to a warm lunch and financial assistance when things get tough. The demand for support from the organization has always been enormous. But in recent months, more people have come to the ark than ever before. “I’ve never experienced it like this,” says aid spokesman Wolfgang Büscher. Inflation is eating away the last euro of families living on subsistence level. And it gets worse. “In two to three months, the first families will starve to death,” he says. “Definitely.”

Save wherever you can

Outside the Arche building in Hellersdorf, Jessy and Antje sit in the shade of the terraced roof. The temperatures of 36 degrees are still bearable here. A few meters away, children ride their bicycles. The heat seems to bother people under the age of 12 less. Both mothers eat sausage with potato salad. For several weeks, the parents of the children have also been able to dine here. “It saves a lot of money,” says Jessy. Not only is the cost of food for her two children, who still live at home and for her, but also electricity costs for cooking, she says, can be saved by eating lunch at the Ark.

While inflation is now approaching the eight percent mark, the Hartz IV index has increased by less than one percent this year. “Inflation has a more dramatic impact on low-income households than on high-income households,” explains Andreas Aust of Paritätischer Verband. Because, on average, three-quarters of the income of the recipients of basic security is spent on basic goods: food, clothing and housing. There is no way to save elsewhere to spend more on food and housing.

Romy tries anyway. She liked to go to Mozart’s morning once a month. It was the only cultural event of the month for her. But even three euros per ticket can be better used at the moment for other things: for example vegetable soup or melon, so that your children have a fresh meal on the table.

The table and the donor reach their limits

Antje travels to Poland once a month to do monthly shopping and fuel up the car cheaply. And Jessy goes to the table every week. This is what many people living on the subsistence level are doing nowadays. State aid and non-state aid organizations are therefore reaching their limits. For many Tafel, the dramatic situation is already leading to overload. Some even have to reject people or ration the available food. The Ark also needs to manage its resources well, but is still trying to help everyone who still comes. Today, almost 1,900 people collect a shopping bag worth € 80 each month.

Arche tries to give children a carefree childhood.

Die Arche had to adjust its fall forecast due to the increased demand for food. By the end of the year, additional costs of EUR 1.5 million are expected. The charity is completely donation-dependent. During the Crown’s pandemic, Arche saw a huge increase in donations. And since the NGO also supports Ukrainian refugees, many people showed great solidarity at the beginning of the Russian war of aggression. In the meantime, however, Büscher has noticed a trend reversal: not only are there fewer donations. People are even calling asking for a refund that they have already given. “It looks really catastrophic,” explains Büscher in the ark garden. Behind him, the children jump on the trampoline.

The catastrophic situation does not seem to reach little Shadi. While most of the children have already given up the cycling course and have made their way to the watermelon station, sweaty and exhausted by the heat, the little boy is still rushing over the ski jump on his red bike. For him at the moment nothing matters other than the speed he can reach on two wheels.

That is the purpose, not only for the Ark, but also for Romy, Antje and Jessy: Children should learn as little as possible about their parents’ concerns. This has not always worked out in the past. “You can’t hide poverty from your children,” says Büscher. With rising prices, this is even more difficult now.

All three women use different child protection tactics. Romy is already starting to buy Christmas presents for her children: one every month until Christmas Eve, so that each child can unwrap at least one gift. Antje does not buy new shoes so that her daughter can buy new sneakers. “I only go to work anyway, I don’t need new shoes for that,” says the geriatric nurse. And Jessy uses a € 9 ticket to take her kids to the Baltic Sea for a day. There they spend a day at the seaside to have at least one vacation this year.

A drop in the ocean

Hardly any part of the assistance package is exchanged at Arche as often as the 9 euro ticket. The relief package lives up to its name, says Aust of the Parity Society. The roughly € 30 billion that the federal government has earmarked for one-off payments, child bonuses, fuel discounts, € 9 tickets and tax breaks have certainly helped. However, according to Aust, only a fraction of this money went to people living on subsistence level. “A lot of money was distributed along with the watering can,” he says. “It made it not enough for those who needed it.”

Future traffic light plans were no different. The proposals currently available would relieve fewer low-income people and recipients of basic income support and would proportionately more help the top earners in the country. In addition, Finance Minister Christian Lindner wants to limit support for the long-term unemployed in the long term. But Romy wonders, “Where exactly should I write down?” She had to put off the child bonus in order to pay the electricity supplier the impending surcharge. “Of course, it’s clear to me that you have to save,” says the mother of four. “At the same time, I think it’s a bit unfairly distributed.”

While politicians fly private jets to weddings, which cost half a million euros, Romy wonders how to continue to support his son in his competitive sport: this year he became Germany’s fencing champion. But instead of endorsing his performance, he only received a letter of congratulations from the state sports union. Now he could qualify for the Youth European Championships in France. However, Romy could not finance the trip.

Just think outside the box

Romy is used to being disappointed in politics. She has tried everything: she spoke to Chancellor Olaf Scholz about the situation of people suffering from poverty on a talk show. In the past, she often attended Frank Zander’s Christmas Party – a homeless party. “It was the only opportunity to talk to politicians and celebrities,” he says. But she never felt her fears were taken seriously.

And in the current crisis, Roma is no different. Because it has a suggestion to the politicians of the Federal Republic of how they could really ease the burden on citizens: temporarily abolish value-added tax on basic goods such as food and hygiene products. “This would help much more than EUR 20 a month per child,” explains Romy. “And not only for me as a recipient of Hartz IV, but for everyone.” Until further aid measures are taken, Romy tries not to think about the future. She can “just see the big picture” because anything that goes beyond winter scares her too much.

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