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German children blighted by poverty

Jasmin and Florian Thiel
In the German capital, Berlin, 36% of children are considered poor

By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Berlin

If you want to know what child poverty looks like in Germany, do not go onto the streets; go into homes, into living rooms and talk to people like the Thiel family.

Twelve-year-old Jasmin Thiel and her twin brother Florian do not look poor.

They have a DVD player and a colour TV. Jasmin is clutching a mobile phone.

If we have problems with our banks, the politicians come together to find a solution very quickly... Nobody comes together to help the children
Michael Kruse
Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk

But they are among the millions in Germany caught in a growing pool of poverty.

Much of what this Berlin family owns, from their furniture to their clothes, has been handed out by local charities.

The mother Andrea has no partner, no job, and receives a welfare cheque which barely covers the bills.

"Once I've paid for rent and for electricity," Ms Thiel explains, "I only have about 200 euros [£172] left a month."

"I've got to buy all our food with that, plus all the things the kids need for school. We usually run out of money before the month's over."

Single mothers

Jasmin and Florian go to a local soup kitchen for their lunch.

It is in a children's centre called Die Arche (The Arc), which keeps poor children fed and off the streets.

Steve Rosenberg reports from Berlin, where more than a third of children suffer economic hardship

One girl, nine-year-old Anne-Marie, is rummaging in a basket of second-hand clothes.

"The shoes I'm wearing now I found here," she tells me. "I got some trousers here, too, and a pullover."

Anne-Marie is part of an astonishing statistic; in Berlin 36% of children are considered poor.

"Most of the children in Berlin live in families like you can find here in Die Arche," says the centre's spokesman, Wolfgang Boescher.

"The typical family is a mother without a husband. She has two or three children from different men, and she has no job, she is not able to work," he adds.

Shrinking economy

Across Germany, one in six children live in "relative poverty", which means in families whose monthly income is 60% or less of the national average.

Professor Hans Bertram
I think we will have an increase in child poverty around 2-3% this year
Professor Hans Bertram

Among the causes of poverty here are the growing number of single mothers, many of whom struggle to find work; the higher birth rate in lower income families; and, some maintain, the controversial welfare reforms pushed through by the previous government.

It was not the global downturn which pushed these children into poverty, but with Germany's economy expected to shrink by up to 6% this year, there is concern that the recession is now placing even more youngsters at risk of hardship.

"I think we will have an increase in child poverty around 2-3% this year," predicts Professor Hans Bertram, one of Germany's leading researchers into child poverty.

"Of course, if people are out of work they have a lot of problems to run a family."

'Wrong priorities'

The German Society for the Protection of Children is even more worried.

Die Arche
Centres like Die Arche have been set up to keep children off the streets

It warns of a "massive" increase in child poverty, once the full effects of the recession kick in.

Germany is not alone. Governments around the world appear to be losing the battle against child poverty.

In the UK, ministers have admitted it will now be "very difficult" to meet their target of halving child poverty by 2010.

In the US, which already has one of the worst child poverty rates among industrialised nations, three million more children are expected to slip below the poverty line.

Charities have been criticising the German government for not doing enough to tackle the problem.

"If we have problems with our banks, or with our car producers, the politicians come together to find a solution very quickly. They give money and credits," says Michael Kruse of Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk.

Andrea Thiel
Andrea Thiel says most companies do not want to hire people her age

"But when I tell them we have three million children who have no future and no money, nobody comes together to help the children. I think it's the wrong priority of our society."

Back in their flat, the Thiel family sits watching TV. It is one of the few family activities they can afford.

Even more debilitating than their lack of money is their lack of hope.

"I don't have any job prospects at my age, I'm nearly 49," says Ms Thiel. "Most employers don't want to hire people as old as me."

"As for my daughter Jasmin, she's given up at school because of the financial crisis. She asks why she should study when she'll end up without a job anyway."



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