Research project on Hartz IV
“We know far too little about poor families”

Life on the margins of society
Life on the margins of society | Photo (detail): © MNStudio/fotolia

A new research project concerns parents and children who live from basic security benefits (Hartz IV). An interview with the sociologist Simone Kreher.

Mrs Kreher, about ten years ago a series of labour market reforms were implemented in Germany. Among these were changes in basic security benefits, known as “Hartz IV”. Today we encounter the issue almost daily in the media. Don’t we already know everything about the so-called Hartz-IV families?

On the contrary. We know far too little about how poor families in Germany live. How do they manage their everyday economy with scant resources? Which expenditures are more important than others? For poor families, it’s also a major challenge to meet the heightened expectations that come from the constant discourse about performance and the highly selective educational system. To open a positive prospect for children and young people living under such conditions puts these families before special difficulties. In my view, this has hardly been noticed by the public.

What is special about your research project?

We assume that poor families haven’t been sufficiently studied under the aspects of family sociology, household economics and social law. Above all, these aspects have hardly been set in relation to one another. The special feature of our project is that we study the whole family in its life together. We observe how the family members reciprocally influence one another and how actors from the social environment affect them. Decisions taken by the job centre , for instance, initially affect individual people, but they always have an impact on the whole family. Moreover, we consider the perspective of children and young people. We want to learn something about how they experience poverty and how these experiences square with what is said about poverty in public and the school.

Interviews with 100 people from 30 families

In what stage is the project?

We’re just starting our interviews. Our interlocutors are adults, children and young people with whom we’ll talk intensively about their lives.

The project will initially run for three years. How many interviews will take place in this space of time?

In the end we will have spoken to about 100 people from more than 30 families. They live in various places in Germany. These places have different structural characteristics: some are big cities, others rural regions or small to medium-sized towns, each with its own socio-cultural conditions and labour markets. We are working on the assumption that it makes a big difference whether you’re poor in a wealthy area in southern Germany or in a structurally weak region on the German-Polish border. If you live relatively isolated in a milieu where everyone else is well dressed, frequently goes to the cinema and talks about holidays, you naturally feel more excluded than when many other people round you live in the same circumstances as yourself.

Many people are happy when someone lends them an unbiased ear

How does it benefit me, as a member of a Hartz IV family, to let you interview me?

Many Hartz IV recipients are happy when someone comes to them who is interested in their everyday life and lends them an unbiased ear. This has been shown by our previous experience. Precisely because the public debate is so denigrating, personal interviews create the space for Hartz IV recipients to present their own picture and to think about themselves – beyond all having to present or sell themselves to the public. Because research results serve to form policy, they also contribute to decision-makers’ having a better idea of the reality of the lives of those affected.

Won’t the families feel rather deserted once the intensive interviews with researchers are over?

We deliberately try to avoid this. It’s important to us to perceive the families as research partners and to address them as competent actors. In addition, we do our best to provide contact to supporting facilities if the families desire this.

Simone Kreher of the Fulda University of Applied Science heads the project together with Werner Schneider of the University of Augsburg and Andreas Hirseland of the Institute for Employment Research. The study “Life Contexts in Multi-Person Communities of Need” is part of a series of research projects that form a scientific accompaniment of the reform of the labour market in Germany. The research is funded by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS).