The basic security in Germany can no longer compensate for the high prices. There are no clear laws for dealing with skyrocketing heating and electricity costs, municipalities act as they see fit and the responsible ministry apparently does not know its own regulations.
By Susan Bonath
With Corona, it became clear to some what arbitrariness is: A patchwork quilt of spongy regulations ran through Germany. Hardly anyone knew what was forbidden in which federal state. The severity of a sentence correlated more than ever with the private attitude of individual officers. A novelty? Not at all: Anyone who is dependent on basic security as a poverty pensioner, disabled person, low earner or unemployed person knows similar arbitrariness. Ambiguous legal terms and communal eccentricity make existential issues a gamble, the success of which depends on regional guidelines and the goodwill of individual clerks.
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This also applies to dealing with the rapidly increasing cost of living. While the federal government’s 11 percent flat-rate increase in social assistance and so-called citizen money as a successor to Hartz IV does not even begin to cushion inflation, those affected – around seven million in total – also have to fear being left with part of the exploding heating costs. Because the municipalities themselves decide to what extent social welfare offices and job centers recognize them. There is no uniform procedure. This is suggested by a response from the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (BMAS) to the author. There are no concerns about possible arbitrariness and insufficient basic security.
What is “appropriate”?
First of all: Many social authorities apparently recognize the exploding heating costs, at least for the time being. But there are other cases too. Several of those affected have contacted the author, whose experiences testify to arbitrariness. Like all tenants, you are struggling with massively increased heating cost advance payments. In some cases they have doubled or tripled, in one case almost quintupled. But they were unlucky and in the future they will be able to pay considerable amounts of it from their completely inadequate standard rate.
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The justifications are as varied as the authorities. Sometimes they accused those affected of “inappropriate heating behavior” without concretely substantiating this accusation, sometimes they referred to a guideline for the “cost of accommodation” from 2021 or earlier, with upper rent limits that have nothing to do with today. Those affected are desperate because they are ultimately threatened with losing their home and becoming homeless.
The devil is in the detail, more precisely: in the word “appropriate”. The federal law states that the basic security providers, i.e. social welfare offices or job centers, should cover the housing costs in full, but only if they are reasonable. And what is appropriate is determined by each municipality for itself. These have their own guidelines for this, officially based on local rental prices for the most basic apartments. Financially strapped municipalities like to calculate small here. A number of such guidelines have already been overturned by social courts in the last 18 years.
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Municipal solo effort
The BMAS pushes off any responsibility and praises the new citizens’ allowance. The increase of a little more than eleven percent also applies to basic security in old age or in the case of reduced earning capacity as well as social assistance. Single people receive 502 euros a month to live on, any relatives between 60 and 80 percent of this, depending on their age. The federal government only prescribes these sentences. In addition, the municipalities should, as I said, take over the “reasonable costs of accommodation”.
“For the interpretation of the concept of appropriateness, there are usually guidelines from the municipal authorities, who are authorized to issue instructions to the job centers,” explained a BMAS spokeswoman when asked. In other words, the ministry has nothing to do with it. She adds: The amount of the heating cost deductions demanded by those affected should be “checked on the basis of consumption” on site, “so that a cost increase with the same consumption does not lead to inappropriateness”.
But how are social welfare offices and job centers supposed to check current consumption at all? Since it is about prepayments, this is hardly possible. Landlords can also assume much higher consumption than is actually the case. This would only show up later in the final bill. There are neither concrete consumption specifications nor calculable values - a gateway for official arbitrariness.
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BMAS does not have its own laws
If you have to pay part of the heating costs from the standard rate, you will quickly find yourself in dire financial straits. After all, inflation also affects the prices of food, public transport and energy. For a long time, social organizations have been complaining about insufficient coverage of real electricity costs. As for all other requirements, a fixed amount is estimated for this in the standard rate.
As the state center for political education in Baden-Württemberg explains, exactly 174.19 euros are included in the salary for food for single people. Accordingly, they should not spend more than 42.55 euros on “housing, energy and residential maintenance”. They should not only use this to pay their electricity bills, but also save money for household repairs.
Apparently, however, the BMAS has forgotten that. Regardless of reality, the spokeswoman claimed that the total monthly fee for those affected contained “no specific amounts for specific items” such as electricity. That is wrong, if only because the social assistance rates are above all an updated calculation product from the income and consumption sample (EVS) collected five years by the Federal Statistical Office. The calculated expenses of 15 percent for this and that, including some items that were declared non-essential, such as house plants or crayons for children, are deducted here.
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Calculation far from reality
Of course, the 42.55 euros per month for electricity and home maintenance make a mockery of reality. Many municipal utilities, on which many poor people often depend – for example because of debt – have already doubled their prices. So if you got there with 40 euros before, you now pay around 80 euros. That alone swallows up the increase in basic security almost completely. There is not much left for the price increases for eating out and traveling by train.
The spokeswoman weighed it down and referred to the electricity price brake. It comes into force in March, but has its pitfalls. Firstly, the price, which is capped at 40 cents per kilowatt hour, is already around seven cents above the average price, which had already risen sharply in the first half of 2022 and was estimated by the Federal Statistical Office. In addition, similar to the so-called “gas price brake”, the cap only applies to 80 percent of the amount of energy consumed in the previous year.
But poor people in particular have been saving on everything for a long time – including electricity consumption. Further restrictions are hardly possible for them. This “price brake” therefore primarily benefits high-volume consumers with a great deal of savings potential, not the neediest. On the other hand, poor people tend to use outdated devices that consume more electricity because they cannot afford new ones.
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Social problems inevitable
The Ministry does not challenge this. There is no comparison with reality, people should just see how they get along. This is how it was already handled with Hartz IV. The spokeswoman said unimpressed: “Against this background, ongoing advance payments and additional payments for household electricity are to be financed from the monthly standard rate.”
It is therefore foreseeable that the poor will not only become more numerous, but also poorer. More social upheavals are inevitable. It is well known that where poverty increases, the crime rate usually also increases. With insufficient social security, a lot of arbitrary paragraphs and optional provisions, the traffic light government is now further promoting the problem – incidentally with the support of the opposition parties CDU and AfD, which have never had much time for the poor either.
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