Socially committed in Munich – For social justice in a wealthy city

Dialogue Forum special at Munich University of Applied Sciences, 6 November 2019

Even in affluent Munich, many people have social problems. How can local politics counter this? What scope for action do social enterprises have? This Dialogue Forum special with the Social Entrepreneurship Academy and the Strascheg Center for Entrepreneurship at the Munich University of Applied Sciences looked for answers.

That not all is well in wealthy Munich has been clear from some time from the city’s official report on poverty. According to that, more than 17% of the population – or 269,000 people – live in relative poverty, because they have less than 60% of the average income. In 2011, the figure was only 204,000 (14.7%). Munich’s Social Welfare Officer, Dorothee Schiwy, warned that this development also posed a threat to social harmony and demanded: “We must also discuss politically where right-wing ideas arise in the context of inequality and how we can counter them.” 

Munich’s coffers well filled
At the same time, the head of Munich’s social welfare authority is aware that the city’s poverty problems cannot be solved just at the municipal level – even though Munich is able to spend a relatively large amount of money, thanks to lavish revenue from local business tax. “Although we can afford many measures that can’t be taken for granted in other municipalities, we can’t change the welfare benefit rates. These are set uniformly throughout Germany, regardless of whether you live in Munich, Jena or Duisburg.” 

Fortunately, in Munich there are a series of local initiatives, associations or social start-ups offering help in different ways. “In the case of acute social challenges, such organisations can often act more effectively than big social agencies or the public sector”, Rüdiger Heid is convinced. He has been running the “buntkicktgut” intercultural street football league since 1997. The aim of the league is to give young people of different cultural and national origin a meaningful leisure activity. “That opens up opportunities for social and cultural learning,” he says. Heid believes that the more the public sector invests in such initiatives and organisations, alongside its mandatory tasks, the greater the social impact. “The more children and young people learn and experience their social, economic and democratic skills through play and appreciation, the better they will find their place and respect in society.” 

Cooking to combat social exclusion 
Jasmin Seipp, with her “Über den Tellerrand” (meaning “thinking outside the box”) café, is committed to better integrating migrants and refugees in Munich. They prepare international dishes in the café. All guests can choose between three possible prices and pay what they can afford. Seipp had started at the height of the movement of refugees in 2015 with cooking events in which locals and migrants prepared typical national dishes together. “Such meeting formats contribute to social togetherness and counteract social exclusion and division”, explained the general manager of the café, established in 2018 and supported by a non-profit association. “Social start-ups like ours offer innovative, pragmatic approaches to countering social inequality in everyday life”, Seipp is convinced. Because Munich is such an expensive place to live, many refugees had to accept any job that was on offer. This was often at the expense of further vocational qualification. “Consequently, these people often have very little chance of getting out of the low-pay sector.” 

Seipp, who previously worked in the financial sector, benefits in her work from her business management skills. For her social enterprise is not funded and must be self-financing. “I’m glad I took this step, even though I earn less today than I did immediately after graduating.” “Social entrepreneurs need entrepreneurial skills”, Heid also stressed. For at the end of the day, they have to make profits which don’t then go into the pockets of individuals but are reinvested, in order to achieve the greatest possible social impact. 

Complicated rules make life more difficult
Sponsorship from social initiatives was possible but always dependent on the individual case and often very complicated, regretted Social Welfare Officer Dorothee Schiwy: “The bureaucracy is enormous. There are loads of requirements that make life difficult for us and the person being sponsored.” On the one hand, she can understand the need to check precisely where the funds are going, as this is public money. “But on the other, this restricts creativity and the possibilities for uncomplicated funding streams.” It was therefore often difficult to promote entrepreneurship. “We find it much easier to support a charitable project that doesn’t earn any money at all, because that eliminates certain tests.” Schiwy generally criticises the regulations in Germany which, on the whole, are rather complex. For example, young refugees cannot work or attend German courses until their refugee status has been recognised. The lack of language skills often makes social integration more difficult. 

Around 70 participants, mostly students from the Munich University of Applied Sciences and the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU), had a lively discussion among themselves about where they encountered poverty in Munich and how they dealt with it.

Old people often find it difficult to apply for help, for example if their pension is inadequate. “Money goes unbelievably fast in our city, what with the high rents and an average pension of €1,400”, says Schiwy. She wished that more of those affected would apply for basic provision in order to get help. But many would be put off by the bureaucratic obstacles in the shape of application forms that are many pages long. Another point was that many people, especially the elderly, simply didn’t know what funding options were available. It’s difficult to reach these people and take away their fear of the unknown. The city is therefore trying to talk to the people concerned, using streetworkers. “With an annual budget of €1.8bn, we have enormous scope for action and also want to use this money in a meaningful way.” 

Social commitment pays off
It’s clear to Schiwy that money alone is not enough. “As a public authority, we can’t replace personal contact and voluntary work.” Besides social enterprises, she also wishes for as many enterprises as possible to also be social. “That is a small but fine distinction.” For example, when firms attract new staff to Munich without their management ever having given any thought to how housing in Munich might be boosted.   

Seipp and Heid are convinced that social commitment and the establishment of social enterprises pay off. “You get back everything that you’ve put in. Not necessarily in terms of money, but at the human level”, says Heid, the creator of the “buntkicktgut” league, who gave up a well-paid job. “You know what you’re working for – and I look forward to something new every day,” adds Seipp. “We never doubted that it was good and right to get our social start-up off the ground and that the business idea works.” If there were more initiatives of this kind in Munich, the “Metropolis with Heart” would justify its reputation even more.   

11 November 2019