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The misapprehensions of Jan Fleischhauer, part 1

May 4, 2012

Snarky time! Editor Jan Fleischhauer has written a column for Spiegel, about what he thinks is wrong about the German social support system “Hartz-IV“. You can read it all here (in German, of course). I will now proceed to tell the Internet what I think is wrong about Fleischhauer’s column. There is a lot of it. Enough for at least two blog posts.

The quotes below will eventually add up to the full column, translated by me.

How should we picture a typical reciever of Hartz-IV? Maybe like this: educated physician with 20 years of experience, now out of work, because her husband ran away and left her alone with six children. Every day this woman queues at the food bank, so that her children will get some fresh fruits to eat; meanwhile, her eight-year-old son has gotten an A+ in Math.

So far so good.

I didn’t make that up. It’s from Kathrin Hartmann’s new book “Unfortunately, we have to wait outside”*, the newest guide to the “new poverty”.

Do you want a golden star for not making your facts up? And maybe another one for giving proper credit? Because surely you don’t mean that Hartmann’s case description is so out there that nobody could take it seriously?

When talking about life in the margins of society, there seems to be a near insatiable need for romanticization of the circumstances. In the semi-annual catalogues of the big publishing houses, a separate genre of “social kitsch” has been established, where the reader is introduced to the world of welfare centres and soup kitchens.

…oh. You did. Romanticization, huh? What’s so romantic about queueing every day at the food bank? Sounds more like humiliation, boredom and hurting feet to me.

The authors mostly come from the post-materialistic middle class, that is, an environment where the way of living couldn’t be further from their objects of study.

Let’s see what part of society Fleischhauer himself belongs to. Here is his German Wikipedia page. Well, well, well… journalist and author, studied literature and philosophy at University of Hamburg, editor at Der Spiegel, his book “Unter Linken” (Among the left wing**) got awarded the Karl Hermann Flach Prize… yep, sounds pretty solidly middle class to me. If Fleischhauer wants to claim that being middle class disqualifies from writing about people on Hartz-IV, then he just disqualified himself too. If he had any sense of decency, he should shut up at this point. Unfortunately, he doesn’t.

I sometimes wonder what drives these women (because it’s mostly women)…

…and everybody knows that women are all emotions and no rationality…

…to inspect the poor quarters of Frankfurt or Berlin in between fussing over which daycare is the best for Jonas and Marie. Maybe it’s boredom. And maybe they are simply having a bad conscience for being so much richer.

Or maybe they are genuinely interested in social issues? Maybe they want to find out exactly what went wrong, the better to repair it?

In this literary market of indulgences, Hartz-IV-recievers without exception appear as victims of circumstances, struck down by a cruel caprice of fate, who are giving everything they have to find their way back into an ordered life.

And when did you last talk to a Hartz-IV-reciever? What story did he or she tell you? “Ah, you know, I don’t really feel like working, so I just stay at home on the sofa and cash in on the social support system, it’s a great life, man, you should try it!”?

That we no longer look down upon poor people, but rather show them understanding and sympathy, can rightly be counted as progress of civilization.

We don’t look down on poor people any more? So what are you doing writing this incredibly disdainful column? Looking down along your nose not only at poor people, but also at the people trying to tell their stories and help them? Also, compare: “I’m not racist, but…” There just has to be a “but” following this sentence.

But the question is: Do we really have to lose contact with reality, just because it feels so good to bask in our own tolerance? It is always wrong to confuse sentimentality with compassion. Never is this mixup so constant and so complete as on the topic of welfare.

Wait, what? I thought sentimentality was a synonym for nostalgia. How on earth could anyone confuse that with compassion? And what reality are we losing sight of by treating poor people respectfully?

Since many years, the number of people at an age capable of employment, who don’t work, and are dependent on state support and thus on the work of others, lies constant at lots more than three millions***. This is independent of the current state of business cycle.

Oh. That. I bet Fleischhauer thinks all of this can be fixed, if we would only stop basking in our own tolerance and stop feeding all three million parasites!

ETA: I should also point out that Fleischhauer is confusing “Hartz-IV-reciever” with “unemployed”. Not the same thing. Somebody who used to have a job, and only recently lost it, will be on unemployment support rather than Hartz-IV. I’m in this group, together with about a million others. On the other hand, many people on Hartz-IV actually have a job – according to this source, in May 2011 only 42% of the Hartz-IV-recievers were formally unemployed. The other 58% percent is composed of the following: working poor, recieving social support because their salary isn’t enough to live on; people going to school; people in some kind of education or pseudo-work provided by the unemployment agency (in theory to keep them active and increase their skill set, in practice to get them out of the unemployment statistics); and people who because of special circumstances (most often the need to care for their children) can’t take a job. So, out of the 4,7 million Hartz-IV-recievers capable of employment, only 2 million are actually in the unemployment statistics. Most of the rest have a job.

Recently, the responsible authorities have reported, that the number of unemployed has gotten lower again. It is now at 2,97 millions, the lowest it has been in a long time. However, the people who most urgently need a new job, because they have long ago lost their familiarity with regular work, will not find any in this economic boom either.

Hey, Fleischhauer, I have an idea! How about you hire us! All 2,97 million unemployed in Germany. You give us work! You acknowledged yourself that the current economic boom won’t be enough to put us all back in productive employment. Ot at least go ahed and hire all the long-time unemployed, the ones that you yourself said need it the most.

Actually, the world of Hartz-IV has mostly become decoupled from the normal employment market.

And this is obviously the fault of the unemployed.

It is hardly ever given attention in the news, though this evolution into parallel societies is at least as important for the future of our country as the side-by-side existence of Germans and Muslims.

Scary, scary Muslims. And if they don’t destroy our fine Fatherland, the unemployed and poor will. Sigh. FYI, Fleischhauer: “Muslim” is a religious affiliation, “German” a nationality. It is perfectly possible to be both at the same time! Mindblowing, huh?

<Ominous music>To be continued…</Ominous music>

* The actual title in German is “Wir mussen leider draßen bleiben”, a phrase usually found on no-pets-allowed-here signs in foodstores.

** And in Germany, that means honest-to-God communists.

*** Total population of Germany 82 million. Of these, 54 million are in the age span 15-64. Source.

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