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Transforming Welfare Stigma in Germany

Addressing the hidden struggles in the ‘Best Welfare System in The World


When I first moved to Germany, I remember being initially puzzled by how people could be experiencing financial hardship here. Tapes from my Malaysian-Chinese context were on play — you have a welfare system, a state that actually has a social safety net to catch you when you fall. Do you know how lucky you are?

My initial perception of the EU powerhouse was that it was stableand socialist’ — worlds away in progressiveness from the places I had previously lived. Whether it was unemployment, pension, childcare — you were on your own, especially as an immigrant. But this was slippery slope thinking, according to which simply having a welfare system would mean everyone in a country was able to succeed. The story would then continue predictably: if people dont climb out of poverty or unemployment with social support, especially in a country like Germany, it would definitely be due to a personality problem. People are doing it to themselves.

As someone who considers themselves embodying the values of the political left, I surprised myself as these thoughts came to me. Neoliberal meritocracy is the dominant global value system today. Far from being just a detached political narrative, its deeply embedded in our consciousness and is dominant in the German public and political mind. It finds itself in public debates about Hartz IV (Arbeitslosengeld II) & Bürgergeld reforms, how institutions like the Job Centre run their services, and around whether immigrants are deserving of help.

Evidently, these narratives were also internalized in me. I had spent so long defining my own right to belonging by the economic standards of being a good immigrant. So, I decided to dig past my own resentment of never having lived under a government that felt compassionate – and understand that the reality of why inequality existed was much more nuanced than that. Under the current climate of employment uncertainty, I wanted to see how the best welfare system in the world catches people when they fall, how it fails people, and how our ideas of successcould affect our own psychological beliefs about who truly deserves help.

The Trauma of Welfare Stigma

Germany’s welfare system has long been admired. It was heralded for being the first nation-state social security system. Unlike the US, it is a state-managed system relatively untethered by corporate interests. It ranks as one of the most generous and comprehensive welfare systems in the world. I was a grateful recipient of German welfare during the pandemic when I first moved here, it remained an important lifeline for me on my way towards finding stability. However, it is not something to be unanimously celebrated.

One of the most commonly discussed and controversial welfare policies was Hartz IV, a colloquial term for Germanys former unemployment fund (Arbeitslosengeld II). Hartz IV helped to trim down Germanys unemployment rate by 50%, but also quickly became associated with heavy stigma towards the working class and immigrants.

As a research assistant at the Fraunhofer Institute a few years ago, my colleague asked me a question that I’m always terrified of: “what is your mother doing?” For the first time, I felt confident enough to be vulnerable and told him that she is unemployed and receiving Hartz IV. His response was one that I’ve heard before: “Oh, really? Why?” I explained that my mother was a single parent who came to Germany from Turkey and worked in seven different places before being let go because she had to pick me up from kindergarten. She couldn’t find a job after that, so she decided to be there for me. My colleague proceeded to express concern about his taxes going to people like my mother who he believes are taking advantage of the system. This is a common narrative that I have to deal with, and it hurts every time. The truth is that many people who receive Hartz IV are not taking advantage of the system.

-Sue Sarikaya, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at The Dive

Sue was far from alone. A study found that the levels of shame felt by recipients of German welfare increased with the amount received40% of recipients who didnt work for more than two years reported feeling ‘completely’ or ‘somewhat’ ashamed of receiving benefits.

My German friends told me they had all grown up with reality TV shows like ‘Die Hartz IV Schule’ which voyeuristically followed children of recipients into their schools and homes, creating a tasteless, sensationalized story around poverty, and the laziness that underlies all the unmotivated people who fell through the cracks.

The story of failure due to personal failures is embedded globally. I surprise myself by finding the remnants of the American Dream even in Germany — a story that no matter who you are, you could make it with enough hard work and dedication. However, this narrative relies on a fracturing from our social context. Where we come from, our own histories, how others perceive us, and who is around to help us. And it is this fragmentation from self and identity that casts out discussion around structural violence. It makes it easy to do a mental one plus one equals two — that marginalized communities are failing because theyre not choosing to work hard, or have regressive cultural norms.

Stereotype endorsements are so powerful, because they are not only reinforced by governments and media, but also by regular people onto each other. Another German friend told me she decided to take up welfare as a newly single mother, and was shamed and accused by her own working class parents for not working for her own money. She was only 19.

Was it failure of the individual? Or the system?

How personal and emotional vulnerabilities intersect with structural inequalities is an understudied phenomena. The world of social psychology rarely intersects with the rational-first economic worldview. Underneath so much of what popular media assigns as ‘lazy’ are people with situational constraints and chronic emotional stresses. The laziness narrative also leaves out the care of lone mothers and fathers, pensioners, the social exclusion of disabled people and immigrants, and the vulnerability of those psychologically struggling. These are the people that make up two thirds of those who are long term unemployed, who many German politicians repeatedly attack for being unable to get out of the welfare system.

As of 2022, 14 million people in Germany were living in poverty. I always found this hard to believe. But,you might say, this is the fourth largest economy in the world!Its easier to understand when you delve deeper into the spoken stories of people, particularly East Germans and those with a migration background, or walk into certain areas. Germanys wealth inequality is also hidden beneath its facade — 99.5% of the wealth rests in the hands of the top 50%.

Poverty and inequality are associated with higher likelihood of trauma, whether childhood, historical, racial or intergenerational. Chronic economic stress and trauma are also correlated with higher likelihoods of addiction, adverse childhood experiences such as domestic violence and neglect, as well as racial and social discrimination. These factors play a reinforcing psychological role in our self worth and ability to economically and socially participate.

The German education system is often criticized for perpetuating inequality from an early age, such as through early tracking of students to place them into different school types based on their academic performance. Children with immigrant backgrounds are often overrepresented in lower-performing schools, critically disadvantaging them from being able to be admitted to universities. “My Turkish best friend told me she was in my year in school, but I just never saw her,” my German friend tells me. “It took me years to realize she was there, just segregated from me completely. Racism also remains a significant issue in Germany. Hate crimes, discrimination, and racial profiling are not uncommon. Financial inequality is also associated with a lack of relationships providing connections to opportunities, which is critical to our success.

Whats missing from the story? Commonly cited reasons for inequality include inadequate food or resource distribution, extended periods of unemployment, discrimination or debt. These are well-known and defined, and yet, also contain decades of debates around why so many interventions have failed. Most development initiatives focus on material distribution – just giving people more food, more money, more opportunities. But just as the meritocracy narrative does, the economic tools used in welfare also largely ignores engaging with our multidimensional reality. By engaging less with our social context, it unironically creates less capacity for self and community development, reinforcing the very dependency it criticizes.

Hartz IV vs. Bürgergeld

German bureaucracy has always had a tendency to prioritize managing issues rather than building capacity. The slogan of Hartz IV has long been “Fördern und Fordern” — sure, lets support the unemployed, but lets also make fierce demands on them to get out of their situation as fast as possible. In other words, motivation through fear.

Hartz IV was grossly controversial for barely keeping people above the poverty line. When taken with other government support systems like child allowances and housing benefits, Hartz IV would make percentage cuts on the amount given to recipients. Every additional euro earned would therefore be subtracted, which left some recipients, including my friends and their families, in further precarious situations. Hartz IV would also punish or threaten recipients with sanction cuts on housing, heating and health insurance if they did not comply. It placed no forgiveness onto people who missed meetings, who were overwhelmed with stress and relational obligations, a stark reality for those living in financially scarcity. In 2018, the highest percentage of sanctions were imposed on under 25 year olds.

Hartz IVs harshest critics also blamed it for being the reason for widening inequality, as the Job Centre quickly pushed people back into work, even if it was low paid with poor working conditions, corrupting an individuals opportunity to re-invent themselves into something potentially much more harmful. A 2017 study also found that the level of service that the Job Centre gave towards Turks and Romanians had significantly lower qualityThe same is found towards EU migrants, due to language barriers.

Today, after decades of calls for reform, Hartz IV has been replaced by Bürgergeld. It has reduced its punishments on recipients, preventing the Job Centre from imposing more than 30% sanctions. It has lowered application requirements, made it easier to apply for education certificates, and slightly increasing its allowance to adjust for inflation. However, many argue that the €53 increase does nothing in light of the current cost of living crisis. Those living in Germany will know how little money would be left after the total €502 is spent on basic necessities like groceries and transportation.

Predictably, the policy has been met with resistance. Centrist and conservative political leaders, such as Markus Söder, framed the higher handoutsand reduced sanctions as an impossible way of motivating people to get back to workIn a public debate on Bürgergeld, CDU party member Kai Whittaker stated that “Solidarity is not a one way street. The overwhelming majority in Germany say that we should help those in need. But the return is that you should get work as quickly as possible.These narratives not only frame the structure of Bürgergeld, but also continue to perpetuate the same old story.

Reclaiming our full human experience

Reimagining welfare and the narratives that accompany it requires a profound shift in our beliefs around how people not only survive, but come to thrive.

Financial incentives and sanctions are effective in context, but in the face of something as multidimensional as poverty, can be like dangling a carrot in someones face and hitting them with a stick when they misbehave. It doesnt engage with the depth of what it means for someone to feel strong again after crisis – to be able to go out in the world to pursue the things that empower them. Thankfully, the Bürgergeld debate is not without more holism. Critics advocate for the Job Centre to take a stronger role in supporting individuals with human mediation. What actually helps people get out of poverty? Theres a myriad of proposals that vow to solve the problem, but Ill share my favorite.

In her debut book Radical Help, UK-based welfare reform activist Hilary Cottam proposes the solution of community. After a 10 year experiment with building social infrastructures with marginalized groups in London, Cottam concluded that capacity building through promoting really seeing and being there for each other was the most effective and long lasting means of helping people thrive. ‘Radical Help’ highlights a possibility of collaboration between public service providers and recipients co-producing solutions, based on contextual community needs. By engaging people and what they struggled with directly, choosing to invest in their potential rather than mitigate risk, she states that we can create long-lasting change that not only catches people when they fall, but gives them enough strength to take flight.

Cottam’s proposal reminds me of my own economic struggles and how Ive overcome them — a marriage of progressive social policies and reciprocal relationships that allowed me to find opportunities and retraining when I couldnt find the right work. Meritocracy tells individuals its all up to them to succeed, but it leaves out the fundamental aspect of community. It seems so simple, but good relationships are fundamental. My friend Saskia tells me she wouldnt be where she is today – being able to confidently step into a job with higher pay than her entire family has ever made — without the presence of inspiring women around her“I know that if they can do it, I can do it too.”

Weve been told the wrong stories. Wrong empirically, wrong emotionally. This doesnt mean we should stop helping people with material needs, but we need to put our survivalist assumptions aside and look deeper. One of the greatest evils of neoliberalism is how we come to believe that we are worthless if we cant meet certain economic standards. Beneath most economically-strugglingpeople are stories of attempts, complicated internal and external circumstances, cycles of stress and isolation. Welfare stigma doesnt just hurt individuals, it also pours into further reform efforts. Around the world, attempts to create stronger welfare support receive backlash from the public around the fear of societal laziness. A study reported that European supporters of UBI demand a caveat on the universal by making strict eligibility requirements for immigrantsI dont blame people for these views — our collective participation in the economic still remains an emotional symbol of personal survival. But these stories need to change, if we are to be able to adapt to the uncertain realities ahead of us.

What kind of an alternative would we be offering ourselves if we looked deeper into the experiences of people, and what they really needed? Would we be able to reclaim our inherent altruism, believing that everyone deserved help regardless of perceived laziness? What kind of help would we be giving if we brought the full human experience back into the story?

This article is dedicated to my friends who have touched me with their stories, and inspired me with their strength. I am also grateful to Brett Barndt, who taught me that emotional is how you engage people with money & economics, and my close friend Tarn Rodger Johns for giving me Radical Helpby Hilary Cottam — reminding me that community is always the answer.

Letter from the Editors: 27th April 2023

International Workers’ Day, repression of Palestinians in Berlin, and Stop War in Sudan


Hello everyone,

Tomorrow (Friday), there’s a demonstration Stop War in Sudan. Sudanese activists, students, refugees, workers and others in Germany, call on the anti-war alliances and refugees movement and especially Sudanese around the country and all over Europe to come, protest, and march. The demo starts at 3pm at the Auswärtiges Amt (German Federal Foreign Office) until 6pm at the Bundestag .”The revolution is a people’s revolution, and power is the power of the people; the military returns to the barracks, and the Janjaweed to be disbanded!”

On Friday evening, there is a solidarity concert for Nakba75 in Café Karanfil, Weisestraße 3 from 7pm. You are invited to an evening full of music from Palestinian artists from Berlin, from Indie, via poetry and rap music to a jam session. All money raised will help to offset the court costs incurred by the people arrested on Nakba Day 2022, and for the costs of this year’s demonstration on 20th May.

Friday evening sees a public meeting Nuestro compromiso con el proceso de cambios en México at 7pm in Karl Liebknecht Haus. This is the opening event for a conference Convocatoria al Encuentro Somos 4T Europa 2023, which will also be taking place in Karl Liebknecht Haus. The event, by and about the Left in Mexico, will be conducted in Spanish only.

On Saturday, there will be a CommUNITY Event Yallah Klassenkampf. If you or your group are interested in preparing for 1st May, come to Theater X. From 11.30 till 6pm, there’ll be a street theatre workshop with “Teatro en Movimiento Callejerx“ from Barcelona. From 2pm till 5pm, banners will be painted and printed, and from 3pm till 5pm slogans will be prepared with the Widerklang choir. The event is organised by Theater X, who are our Campaign of the Week.

On Saturday evening, there’ll be an event in German, 75 Jahre Nakba: Anti-Palästinensischer Rassismus & Repressionen in Berlin (75 Years Nakba: Anti-Palestinian racism and repression in Berlin). We cannot remain silent! We must discuss the different forms of repression against Palestinian activism in Germany, as well as how we can bring the protest for basic human rights for Palestinians to the streets in Berlin and Germany during the 75th year of the Nakba. The event starts at 5.30pm in Spreefeld, Wilhelmine-Gemberg-Weg 14. Please note that the starting time and venue have changed.

Monday is International Workers’ Day, a public holiday in Germany. There are plenty of activities which you can visit. Here are just some of them:

On Thursday, 4th May, the Berlin LINKE Internationals have their monthly open organising meeting at 7pm in Erif Aralp’s office, Zeughofstraße 22 opposite Görlitzer Park. Everyone is invited to come along and discuss coming activities including a new walking tour about Marx’s Berlin, a book presentation on Modi and Israel, and a film about the British miners’ strike. Above all, the discussion will be about planning Summer Camp on 10th-11th June. Book your place at Summer Camp here to ensure free accommodation.

We always say that the week is full of activities in Berlin, but this week is particularly full. You can find out about many more events at our Events page. You can also see a shorter, but more detailed, list of Events which we are directly involved in here.

In News from Berlin, rail workers strike again, participation in Last Generation actions increases from 80 to 1000 people, and Franziska Giffey becomes Berlin’s new finance minister.

In News from Germany, the faction fight inside die LINKE in NRW continues, the AfD is now 10 years old and has established itself as a far right party, over 1,600 researchers sign a declaration that Last Generation’s tactics are legitimate, Labour minister Heil issues a proposal for working hours legislation, and more transport strikes are planned.

Read all about this week’s News from Berlin and Germany here.

New on theleftberlin this week, we publish an open letter from Israeli and Jewish Berliners against banning Palestine demos, John Mullen looks at the chances of French protestors defeating Macron, Hari Kumar looks at the importance of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Evan Bernel looks at what Germany’s new cannabis laws really mean, Phil Butland looks at the hypocrisy of those attacking British Labour MP Diane Abbott, Sudanese socialists suggest how you can support them, and Florian Marchais reports from Serbia on a new wave of protests.

You can follow us on the following social media:

If you would like to contribute any articles or have any questions or criticisms about our work, please contact us at And do encourage your friends to subscribe to this Newsletter.

Keep on fighting

The Left Berlin Editorial Board

The Serbian Ruling Party Can’t Provide Basic Access to Electricity

Why Serbians are protesting


On April 24th, 2023, about 200 protesters, mostly members of Želimo Struju u 21. Veku (We Want Electricity in the 21st Century) rallied in front of the Serbian National Assembly in Belgrade. For around 5 months, 1,000 families in the capital voiced their concerns over a lack of electricity in their homes.

The protesters chanted slogans like “we want energy” while politicians or staff members entered and exited the parliament or watched from the windows. The rally’s main organizers also gave speeches with megaphones and condemned president Alexander Vucić’s complicity in their lack of connection to the energy grid.

Marko Stevanović, a head organizer of 21st century electricity, said their collective spoke with authorities who promised to solve their energy security issues who took no concrete steps as of yet. Stephanović testified that his activist collective knows there are many more who suffer from a lack of electricity. 

Želimo Struju u 21. Veku describes itself as an apolitical, single-issue collective focused exclusively on trying to solve the material needs of residents of Serbia who struggle with energy needs. Although the collective itself is non-partisan, political activists including Milena Repajić, the secretary general of the Partija Radikalne Levice (Party of the Radical Left) and members of the opposition in the national assembly attended the protest. 

After the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 90s, many settled in new housing or built their own homes. They reside in them but still don’t have electricity after 4 years, according to some reports. Since late 2018, it’s become impossible to connect to the electric grid without a building permit or legal permission. Before then, an application for a permit would suffice.

In late January, the group also protested in front of the parliament with about 100 members in attendance, as Vučić was abroad at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Local press in Serbia shows that the lack of electricity is not only felt in Belgrade but in other major cities as well. In July 2021, the mayor of Niš, Serbia’s third largest city promised that 35 resident’s would be connected to the electricity grid after more than one decade of waiting for energy utilities. At the time, 4,500 households were still left without electricity. 

Niš’s current mayor belongs to the Serbian Progressive Party (Vučić’s ruling party since 2012). Nine months after his declaration, the municipal opposition “Niš Moj Grad” (Niš is my City) demanded that the city negotiate with the national government and Elektroprivreda Srbije, the largest energy company in Serbia, to bring power to 7,500 households still waiting for power. 

One can assume that the energy crises endured by Serbians in various major cities remains unresolved. This small string of rallies in front of the National Assembly comes months after the Serbian government, faced with massive popular protests in multiple cities, revoked a license from Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto for the multibillion dollar project to exploit a lithium deposit in the Jedar Valley of western Serbia. Rio Tinto still wishes to pursue its operations and spent millions on Serbian land deeds recently. 

While a swathe of average Serbians are suffering from energy precarity – the Serbian government and landowners are still trying to sell off national resources to Western companies like Rio Tinto. So much for Vučić’s “patriotism” and “cunning” negotiation skills. 

One can only hope that the protests for energy access will broaden to reach the scale of those against the negative environmental effects of lithium mining and light the spark to a bigger national movement against the ecocidal and unjust neoliberal system under which Serbia currently finds itself.

Theater X

Political Youth Theatre in Moabit

Theater X is an alternative CommUNITY theatre in Berlin Moabit, run by young people and workers together in co-management. Theater X is run by a working group in which all areas of the theatre are represented. A producers’ collective, including the young people themselves, organises the direction, dramaturgy, technics and production,  supported by coaches. This is where young peopple learn the craft of working as self-sufficient artists – from acting to lighting and managing events. With home and guest productions, there is plenty of space for initiatives and perspectives from the neighbourhood and the different commUNITIES of Berlin and beyond. Theater X sees itself as an important young and political cultural area for Moabit and Berlin,

In the centre of Theater X’s progarmme is a critical artistic engagement of social relations from the perspective of marginalised youth. Theater X should be a place where different communities can play and meet, but can also be used as a site of production.

Theater X sees itself as an alternative democratic artistic establishment. Artistic and business processes are not separated from each other, but seen as equally important elements for the emancipatory production of art with young people. Work on the same level between the different areas of the theatre is central, in particular between the workers and young people, is the central principle. Theater X is run by a direction working group, in which all important areas of the theater – artistic, dramatic and technical – are represented.

Theater X invites you to a CommUNITY Event Yallah Klassenkampf on April 29th.

If you or your group are interested in preparing for 1st May, come to Theater X.

From 11.30 till 6pm, there’ll be a street theatre workshop with “Teatro en Movimiento Callejerx“ from Barcelona.

From 2pm till 5pm, banners will be painted and printed, and from 3pm till 5pm slogans will be prepared with the Widerklang choir.

From 5pm till 6pm, there will be a presentation of the street theatre performance with the subject class struggle and other theatre scenes.

From 6pm, there will be cooking, grilling, eating and chilling in front of Theater X, Wiclefstraße 32

How you can help people in Sudan

Useful texts, petition, and where you can send donations

For people asking how they can help the Sudan protests, we are publishing this text from Sara Abbas. Note that SudanUprising is organising a demonstration in Berlin on Friday, 28th April, starting at the Auswärtiges Amt, Werderscher Markt 1. Please go to show your support,

Greetings all,
Sudanese civic organizations, resistance committees and the Sudanese diaspora have put out an urgent call for global solidarity and support to end the bloody war that broke out in Sudan and to open roads and borders for those fleeing, as well as for humanitarian relief. Below are ways to help. Please use and share.
Article on what’s happening in Sudan:
Ways you can help:
Use hashtags: #SudanUpdates
  • #KeepEyesOnSudan
  • #NoToWar
  • #لازم_تقيف
  • #لا_للحرب
Check out for how to help. It’s being updated regularly.
Organizations in Europe can add their name to the Sudanese diaspora in Europe’s petition (both Sudanese and non-Sudanese orgs welcome):
Individuals can sign here:
Those who want to connect to the unions in Sudan, contact the MENA Solidarity Network. They are connecting with the unions. We need statements by the unions globally rejecting the war and other statements of solidarity.
Those wanting to donate to the relief efforts (URGENT), the best route is via Sudan Doctors-UK, they have extensions to the Sudan Doctors Union inside. Use this paypal.
or via the following bank details:
The Union
Acc. number: 16326868
Sort code: 309626
Reference: Medical Aid
International donations:
IBAN: GB15LOYD30962616326868
In solidarity