Social policy: Marcel Helbig: It is not migration that divides cities

Social policy: Marcel Helbig: It is not migration that divides cities

Misery has many faces. Shop window in the Marzahn-Hellersdorf district of Berlin

Photo: imago/F. Anthea Schaap

Recently, FDP vice-president Wolfgang Kubicki caused a stir with his proposal to cap the proportion of migrants at 25 percent per district. He wanted to prevent the emergence of banlieues like in France. Are we really close to “French conditions”?

First of all, with the limit of 25 percent people with a migration background, Kubicki ignores the reality in many cities. Offenbach now has a proportion of people with foreign citizenship of 37 percent. Frankfurt am Main, Ludwigshafen, Pforzheim, Heilbronn and Munich are now also at 25 to 30 percent. If you add those with a German passport who have a migration background to these people, the proportion is significantly higher.

What does it look like at the district level?

In the large western German cities there are a significant proportion of districts in which more than 50 percent of the residents have foreign citizenship. There is a district with a share of over 30 percent in almost every West German city, and now even in some East German cities. Even if one wanted to achieve a proportion of 25 percent of people with a migration background, this is unrealistic. The fact that rich cities such as Frankfurt am Main, Munich and Heilbronn have a foreign population of 25 percent also shows that migrants have very different social conditions. A British banker in Frankfurt or an Indian engineer in Munich contributes nothing to the social problems that Mr. Kubicki has in mind. It is much more important that In many districts in large cities, more than 50 percent of all children are poor. We should keep an eye on these poverty situations. However, child poverty and the proportion of foreigners in neighborhoods are increasingly linked.

So you don’t see the problem in ethnic parallel societies like Mr. Kubicki, but in social ones?

One should certainly also take ethnic parallel societies into account and talk about them openly. But I think it is much more important to either counteract the concentration of poverty in our cities or deal with the consequences.

One looks in vain in Wolfgang Kubicki’s statements for concrete suggestions on how to cap the proportion of migrants in the city’s districts. Would there be any practical ways to achieve greater social mix in the individual districts?

Overall, this is very difficult. In general, the distribution of migrants or poverty follows market mechanisms. In many cities we have neighborhoods where rents are comparatively low, while in others they are relatively high. Those who cannot afford it, which often includes migrants, have few neighborhoods to choose from where they can afford an apartment or where the state will pay for them to live. Without intervention in the market, for example through social housing in better residential areas, there is hardly any way to counteract social polarization in cities. However, such measures are expensive and only have a long-term effect.

A district characterized by “migrants” sounds very vague. Besides a family of doctors from Sweden, everyone would probably like to live in Germany?

Correct. The focus should be on poverty rather than on migration backgrounds. Both are connected in Germany. In many cases, however, there are also well-off migrants, mostly from the European cultural area.

The conditions sometimes seem concrete. Anyone who lives in Blankenese will stay in Blankenese and their children will also live there. How permeable is our system? Are rich and poor already spatially separated?

There are neighborhoods where social conditions have been concrete for decades are. Let’s take the old shipyard workers’ quarters in some northern German cities, the workers’ quarters in the old mine sites in the Ruhr area or the large prefabricated housing estates in the eastern German cities. These districts have been characterized by poverty and unemployment for decades and this is also where the influx from abroad is highest. But there are also a number of cities where social boundaries are less strong. The high rents in southern German cities have led to the middle class finding accommodation in districts where poverty rates were previously high.

After reunification, there was a lot of empty living space in the new federal states. Have more heterogeneous neighborhoods emerged here?

Vacancies arise primarily where residents of a city do not want to live. In the East German cities these were mainly the large housing estates. If a high proportion of poor people come to a city, such as the refugees in the last ten years, then this is where they find affordable housing. This particularly reinforces social and ethnic segregation. Today, East German cities are more socially divided than West German cities.

CDU General Secretary Carsten Linnemann recently joined Kubicki and expanded his demands to limit the proportion of migrants in German school funds to “somewhere at 35 percent.” What should we make of this demand? Just populism or really a good idea?

In principle, these suggestions are correct in that it makes sense that some schools do not bear the entire challenges of migration, integration and poverty, while other schools are free from them. Even though there is little research on this in Germany, it can be assumed that the educational opportunities in schools with a high proportion of migrants and, above all, a high proportion of poverty are lower than in schools with low proportions. However, it is not clear to me how the requirement should be implemented.

To what extent are place of residence and school related in today’s Germany? There are many attempts in the individual federal states to think about schools more collaboratively.

I don’t see that the change from three-tier to two-tier school systems has contributed anything to educational equity. The abolition of secondary schools in some federal states was the reaction to the fact that only a few parents chose this school and they became social “residual schools”. The merger of secondary and secondary schools could even have resulted in middle-class parents choosing secondary school even more today. What is particularly problematic here is that the shortage of teachers hits non-high school schools much harder than high schools in many federal states.

Does segregation actually only begin with the transition after elementary school?

Especially in many larger cities, the social segregation of primary schools, mediated by residential segregation, is almost as high as in secondary schools. In addition, especially in the primary school sector, privileged classes send their children to private schools in order to avoid having to attend the public primary school in the catchment area. We don’t tend to see these social differences between public and private high schools.


Bernhard Ludwig

Marcel Helbig heads the work area for structures and systems at the Leibniz Institute for Educational Trajectories in Bamberg. The social scientist researches social inequality in the education system.

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