Children as a Poverty Risk is a Scandal
Interview with evangelical bishop Wolfgang Huber
Evangelical bishop Wolfgang Huber on the reform of the welfare system and the conflict around the head scarf prohibition in German schools
[Reforming the welfare system is essential says the council chairperson of the Evangelical church in Germany, bishop Wolfgang Huber. The burdens must be distributed justly. This interview originally published in: Frankfurter Rundschau online, January 12, 2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.fr-aktuell.de/fr_home/startseite/?cnt=369231.]
Frankfurter Rundschau: Bishop Huber, you see hard times ahead for the population. How excruciating will it be?
Wolfgang Huber: We must take seriously the aging of society so we don't begin much too late. All the promises for a fast economic upswing have not proven true up to now. That economic growth will cushion the demographic shifts in the near future cannot be assumed. We must deal with limits differently than in the past. This challenge faces us. What was done up to now was necessary but brings certain groups into a difficult situation and endangers elementary standards of social justice.
Protection of the poor had top priority in the 1997 Social declaration of the churches. Now church voices only seek to cushion the reform process. Have the churches become tame?
Wolfgang Huber: The church may never slacken in advocacy for the weak and distressed. Social justice means: What benefits do we claim and what possibilities do we leave the next generation? Focusing on the living conditions of the next generation is part of the admonishing "prophetic" task of the church. In this regard, our society is not yet marked by a reform readiness oriented in the standards of justice, solidarity and sustainability. Conduct today must ask whether we will still be able to speak of a welfare state in 2014 or 2016 and not only look to 2004 or 2006 election votes and election chances.
This is an elementary aspect of social justice like supporting those endangered today. "Be not anxious about sustainability and generational justice. This will happen automatically. Limit yourself to being advocates of the poor!" would be the wrong message to the church. A dysfunctional or non-functioning welfare state in the foreseeable future will not benefit the poor at all.
Do you see an intensification of the antagonism of poor and rich?
Wolfgang Huber: This intensification appears first of all in the labor market, not in political reforms. There we see stagnating wage incomes, sub-standard salaries, low wages and high unemployment. Simultaneously many high manager salaries are rising. I consider this unacceptable in our difficult social situation. The question of social justice is raised more sharply than before in two regards. Firstly, we must ask: What benefits do we claim today and what burdens do we impose on the next generation? The other question is just as important: How do we relate to those who depend on effective support by the systems of social security? Economic power enables these systems to fulfill their tasks. Financial resources make possible social benefits. Social justice must set limits to the assertion of economic interests. These two standpoints are often played off against each other today and must be united.
The future uncertainty that motivated the reform measures was not overcome by the reform pact. This uncertainty has even intensified. Hardly anyone can estimate the consequences of the measures for life planning. Transparency, clarity and simplicity are important characteristics of trust-building reforms in the relation between the tax system and the social system. People must know how they can make ends meet.
Isn't the criticism of social security recipients, disabled and the socially weak more vehement?
Wolfgang Huber: All too often persons dependent on assistance are under pressure for irresponsibly claiming the resources of the community. Parents with disabled children are told that they acted irresponsibly. Breaking off pregnancy would have been responsible. Imputing illegitimate conduct to people who need help and rightly claim the social system is not acceptable. On the other hand there are people who can provide for themselves and nevertheless claim social benefits as self-evident. They improve their incomes from illicit work with unemployment benefits.
Where is the limit of maximum stress for people?
Wolfgang Huber: The limit of maximum stress has been reached and surpassed for many today, particularly for people who live at the poverty line. In my opinion, the well-to-do are not claimed by fees. Rather they are relieved by new standard taxes. When the limit of maximum stress is crossed and young persons are responsible for raising children, this is very shocking to me. How children grow up in this society has not been a central theme of the reform debate up to now...
Johannes Rau, president of Germany, says the monk's habit in the school is hard to justify with a head scarf prohibition.
Wolfgang Huber: Allowing the head scarf is necessary for the sake of integrating Muslims in our society. In this regard, I urge careful arguments and reasoning.