The article analyzes the design and implementation of the German Social City programme as well as the effect of recent welfare and labour market reforms in terms of the role their activation and participation strategies play in combating social exclusion. The emphasis on concepts of “active citizenship” and “empowerment” of these reforms and, at the same time, the pressure of the Neoliberal economic system in the analysis of Mayer reveals conceptual and practical ambiguities. What do “activating neighbourhood” and “empowerment” mean in the Neoliberal Cities? In this context of the transformation of social policies, non-profits and local groups have been deeply affected by the inclusiveness of the market, their power reduced and forced towards the implementation of a low-wage labour force. However, as the author suggests, such entities should be able to open up certain spaces and continue to have the potential of defending and exploring alternative models of working and living.

The Emergence of Activating Policies
in the German Context

In the late 1990s, when unemployment first went above the 4 million threshold and became the campaign issue of the 1998 election, the German Social Democrats devised the concept of the ‘activating state’ thereby reformulating traditional social-democratic thinking. According to this concept, the state is supposed to promote and enable the activities of its citizens rather than merely hand out benefits and thereby enforce the ‘passivity’ of citizens. As similar reorientations in North American or British policy, the ‘Third Way’ strategy of activating citizens resonates with conservative calls for more self-responsibility of citizens. In fact, a crucial element of the ‘activating state’ is the call for reciprocity: ‘no rights without responsibilities’ (in the Giddens formulation, 1998:65) translates into ‘Fördern und Fordern’ (supporting and demanding), which has become the key principle of the new German approach to labour market policy (Hombach 1999:44), linking any benefits or support to specified duties of the ‘clients’. Further, the ‘activating state’ is also meant as a tool to increase ‘flexibility’ in the labour market, especially on the supply side (Blair/Schröder 1999:889), and to expand the low-wage (service) sector (Heinze/Streeck 2000). A guiding assumption (expressed in a new vocabulary that has replaced traditional terms such as ‘poverty’ or ‘equality’ with ‘social exclusion’ and ‘social cohesion’) of this policy shift is that poverty/‘social exclusion’ is best addressed by attaching people to the labour force (rather than aiming at greater equality as measured by income), hence the emphasis on integrating welfare recipients into programs for jobseekers.

The re-launch of the German labour market and welfare regimes, which followed from this reorientation and which was accomplished through the Hartz reforms (cf. Hans Böckler Stiftung 2006), has impacted not only on the benefit recipients, but also on the service providers and agencies implementing these policies and delivering the new benefits, including the third sector non-profits concerned with servicing the jobseekers and especially those deemed ‘difficult to integrate.’ Many of these non-profits are community-based, either rooted in their neighbourhoods or, even if not ‘home-grown’, tasked to serve specific ‘needy areas,’ where the poor and unemployed increasingly concentrate and where their plight is seen to be intensified by the features of the blighted, disadvantaged neighbourhood they inhabit.

The non-profits servicing these disadvantaged groups now have to deliver enhanced self-activity of their clients, are called upon to nurture and make use of ‘social capital’ and ‘endogenous potentials’ in their work fields, and are involved, as civil society ‘stakeholders’, in new local partnerships between the municipality, the employment office and private sector actors. Participatory structures, in other words, are emphasized at every step of the way in the implementation of welfare and labour market reform. Another new program has been even more explicit about requiring the participation of (disadvantaged) residents as well as that of community-based organizations: a—for Germany novel—territorially-oriented program, which the federal government established, together with the states, in 1998 in order to address the new forms of urban inequality and marginalization concentrating in certain deprived neighbourhoods.

This program, called ‘Soziale Stadt–Neighbourhoods with a particular need for renewal’ (frequently translated into English as ‘Socially Integrative City’, in this text literally translated as ‘Social City’), began to be implemented in 1999 with the stated goal to improve the living conditions of residents of disadvantaged neighbourhoods through an “active and integrative urban development policy” (Döhne/Walter 1999:25), and thus is comparable in many respects to similar programs, which had been put to work in other European countries since the 1980s, such as the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal in Britain, or Development Social des Quartiers and Regies du Quartiers in France. All of these seek to 'activate' or empower spatially defined needy groups and thus to enhance the social cohesion of the city.1

The insertion of German cities into the global economy has brought with it more competitive and entrepreneurial forms of urban development, and an urban political system that has expanded to include civil society ‘stakeholders’. These two trends have been accompanied by a third, equally characteristic of the current structural transformation and political re-orientations: intensifying social inequalities and the erosion of established welfare rights, which together have contributed to new processes of exclusion (cf. Mayer 1994). This third trend was exacerbated in Germany when the initial unification boom slowed down, and the opening of Eastern Europe intensified locational competition, confronting German regions with extreme low-wage locations right outside their doorstep. At the same time, cities became the destination of a huge influx of migrant workers, civil war refugees and illegal immigrants from Eastern European as well as third world countries.

Inside cities, these developments produced overlapping sets of problems, as poverty migration targeted the inner cities, while middle and higher income households continued their suburban out-migration, and as more and more manufacturing was outsourced, laying off domestic workers, while the service sector could not compensate for the disappearing jobs. Since 1993 the numbers of unemployed and welfare recipients2 have been consistently on the rise. Municipal budgets have been affected dramatically, their incomes from taxes dwindling, but their expenditures, especially social expenditures, exploding.3

The rising unemployment rates have played a particularly crucial role in shaping the new urban polarization, not just through the high levels of unemployment4, a growing part of which has turned into long-term (structural) unemployment, but particularly because its spatial concentration and combination with other forms of structural discrimination have led to whole neighbourhoods getting caught in a ‘downward spiral’ of economic, social, and infrastructural erosion reinforcing poverty, and to the permanent exclusion of disadvantaged groups from the labour market and everything it entails. The labour market problems, initially a result of the globalizing economy, are therefore in many areas no longer filtered and buffered by urban infrastructures of housing and social services. To the contrary, they are intensified through housing problems and the cumulative combination with other forms of social, cultural, and political disadvantage. Whatever integrative potentials such neighbourhoods might have had is rapidly eroding under these trends, producing a new, distinct geography of social need (Kronauer 2002).

The German ‘Social City’ Program and the Role
it Assigns to Participation

The ‘Social City’ program itself, while describing the new problems of socio-spatial blight very precisely, has been vague about the agenda to be implemented.5 Rather than prescribing what concretely is to be done, it has focused on the ways in which whatever is to get done is done, stressing the integrated, comprehensive, networking fashion and the making use of synergies through ‘activation’. In late 2010, however, this comprehensive nature of the program has been significantly reduced by the federal government, as it decided to cut funding for programs emphasizing integration and social cohesion, focusing instead on investive measures. Initially, the specific goal-setting was delegated downward to the organizations implementing the program, became the task of the Quartiersmanagements. They have been tasked with identifying the needs and interests of the respective neighbourhood and with integrating those into a strategic program. One might conclude from this that urban planning authorities have abdicated responsibility, or at least concede that their instruments cannot address the complex problems of deprived neighbourhoods.

The projects carried out during the first decade of the program can be grouped into three clusters: those improving the looks of the neighbourhood, those seeking to initiate economic development, those implementing project ideas produced in the context of participatory procedures. None of these were part of a strategic, long-term plan; all of them shared a short-term perspective and they have been comparatively easy to implement. Goals, in other words, were defined in an incremental fashion, not on the basis of a plan but rather out of whatever concrete opportunities seemed to allow.

The role of residents in this process consists not in participation in planning and decision-making on various urban renewal boards. Instead, resident participation today means the activation of self-help potential and of local initiative, and developing and consolidating neighbourhood networks (Klimke 2001:11). Playgrounds were refurbished, sport and photo competitions held, vacation projects for school kids undertaken, local history exhibits organized—but there were no projects around potentially conflictive issues such as gentrification and displacement of low-income groups, the severe cuts in the local social infrastructure, the support needs of immigrants, or the presence of illegal drug consumption. In other words, the participatory mechanisms of Quartiersmanagement have rarely been applied to processing any of the controversial issues characteristic of stressed neighbourhoods.

The significance of empowerment in the context
of the new ‘social inclusion’ policies

Both of these innovations—Social City in the field of urban development, the social and labour market reforms culminating in the Hartz laws in the field of employment policy—contribute to the emergence of a new configuration between the local (cooperative) state, the market, and the third/non-profit sector. The goal of involving (territorially-based) civil society actors and of trying to make use of their empowerment strategies is to compensate for market failures and bureaucratic shortcomings, assuming that not only economic and social improvements for the 'problem' neighbourhood (or group) will follow, but also an increase in social cohesion and democratic participation.

Whether we look at the ‘Neighbourhood Management’ teams and development organizations working within the ‘Social City’ program or at the work integration non-profits making use of the labour market instruments, all of them have come to operate within a context where they are bound by formal contracts and embedded in an increasingly competitive market, which set clear limits to the empowering and inclusive effects they are able to generate.

The definitiveness with which most authors assume the organizations staffing this sector are driven by a clear mission, strong social justice orientations, public welfare interest, or other progressive values is hardly sustainable. All the various approaches competing in third sector scholarship start with strongly positive assumptions and ascribe more or less autonomous, catalytic functions to the groups and associations.

On the ground, third sector organizations, at least in the fields surveyed here, hardly match these assumptions. In the social and employment field, there is no longer much mention in the current German social and political reality, of the 'integrative function' of programs and organizations that support the job-seeking or otherwise needy groups, which was still stressed in the post-unification debates about active labour market policies as crucial both to German society and to the unemployed. There are hardly any influential advocates—in politics, the media, or in academia—who would engage themselves for even defending the existing social infrastructures or for improving the legal and financial conditions for the non-profits active in employment and social support work.

Most of these non-profits, while now operating as the extended arm of the local state in restructuring local social and labour market policies, have simultaneously become market actors competing and cooperating with commercial providers of job placement and employment services. This has so far been legally blocked because state programs, while encouraging the non-profits to become entrepreneurial, require that the subsidized positions for the clients be ‘additional’ (i.e. not within the regular labour market) and ‘for the public welfare.’ The German non-profits, which cannot—like comparable US or British organizations—commercialize their operations so easily (and use a profit-making venture to subsidize their other goals), have already seen their capacities eroding as public funding and the instruments they work with have, over the last decade, been cut back further and further, as fluctuation rates of their staff have increased, and many are facing existential problems.

People looking for support are increasingly turned away; sustainable employment perspectives are rarely generated. Most of the programs and instruments implemented in Berlin, for example, continued to prioritize particular target groups rather than making use of integrative or territorial measures. The increasing emphasis on ‘work-first’ means that the success of non-profits and their insertion programs is not measured in terms of the social and economic stabilization of the clients, but in terms of placement quota and savings. If local governments wanted to make use of the potentials of non-profit organizations in combating the marginalization of the unemployed, they would need to make every effort to counter the trends that are currently conquering the work integration sector and provide a supportive framework for good practice programs.

The ‘Social City’ program defines community cohesion and local civic pride as essential for unlocking energy from below and identifies the third sector as a new economic actor that can use unemployed or marginalized people for meeting local social needs. However, by defining these areas as ‘neighbourhoods with particular renewal needs,’ it casts economic decline as a spatial and social pathology, and constructs hard-pressed areas as ‘failed communities.’ This does little to address the real causes of the ‘downward spiral’ these neighbourhoods are caught in, but instead throws local social symptoms of decline back at them as causes (cf. Amin 2004). The focus on small and disparate projects and on local networks as solutions for the ‘failed communities’ not only ignores the real sources of decline and distracts from the lack of policies that might equip these areas with jobs and mobility, but together with the new rhetoric of ‘social capital’ and ‘civic indicators,’ codified as measures of local potential, it even blames them as responsible by declaring them as not (yet) ‘civic’ and ‘active’ enough.

Participation of residents, in this context, has come to mean either participation in small-scale, discrete ‘projects’ or participation in the labour market through active efforts at (re)insertion. It does not mean participation in policy-making and political decision-making on a level where the actual causes of local decline and the unavailability of good jobs might get addressed. Participation in decision-making has to occur on a scale, where growth and investment might get controlled and their spatial effects monitored, or where redistributive policies would be called for, since without such policies the built-in biases of the new competitive order work in favour of booming regions only. Instead, the participation of intermediaries and non-profits has come to mean that they are supposed to be busy training and feeding and inserting their clients instead of representing them, advocating and lobbying for them, or ‘joining coalitions against poverty’ (Schambra 1997:49; cf. Berry/Aarons 2003:4).

In other words, ‘empowerment’ as preached and increasingly practiced here appears as part of a drive to develop a bottom-up localism and self-activation, where weak localities (and hard to employ individuals) are asked to develop capacity to become competitive—a daunting task seen possible only through civic involvement and grassroots participation. This is why local activism, civic engagement and empowerment are now so prominently built into political programs for sustainable urban/community development and economic growth.

However, the third sector is neither an autonomous, homogeneous or stable civil counter-society, nor is it a simple (labour market) instrument easy to be applied and modified from the top. Instead, the self-image and orientation of the non-profits are shaped by changing values as well as generalized ‘modernization pressures’—i.e. they might be suitable for smoothing the implementation of neoliberal market models and authoritarian control strategies, but they might also continue to have the potential of defending and exploring alternative, more needs-based models of living and working. For the latter to unfold, they will need to challenge and resist the thrust of the new ‘social localism’ and narrow definition of ‘active citizenship’ that instrumentalizes civic engagement for inserting people into ‘work at any price’ positions while preventing them from meaningful political participation.

  • 1. Besides these legally stipulated forms of grassroots participation in combating social exclusion, more spontaneous, voluntary forms continue to exist, such as social enterprises and a variety of third sector organizations that are not tied into state-orchestrated programs to deliver specific services to needy populations. However, this article focuses on exploring the role of participation and empowerment in the new state policies.
  • 2. The number of welfare recipients started rising in the early 1980s: 1982 for the first time in post-war Germany counted more than 1 mio recipients, in 1991 the 2 mio mark was surpassed. The number decreased (by 450.000) in 1994 when asylum seekers were put on a different kind of benefit, but in the following years the numbers of welfare recipients continued to rise, reaching 2.76 mio by 2002 (3.3%) (cf. Statistisches Bundesamt 2003, 7-9). Since the passage of Hartz IV, the former recipients of welfare and the former recipients of unemployment assistance (in 2000: 1.46 mio) were merged into new categories of recipients (see FN 26 below). In January 2005 the numbers of recipients of the new ALG II and those receiving Sozialgeld amounted to 6.8% of the population (cf. Sozialpolitik- 2005).
  • 3. West German cities saw their incomes reduced even more through the transfer payments to the East, but East German cities fared no better, having hardly any tax income.
  • 4. While the nation-wide unemployment rate reached (march 2005) 12.6%, regional variations are important: in Baden-Württemberg, for example, it has hovered around 7%, but in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern around 23%.
  • 5. The “goals” listed are extremely broad: the “Guidelines” encompass six categories: 1. rebuild neighborhood life through establishing neighborhood management offices and neighborhood councils, by providing space for community activities and support for self-help activities; 2. support the local economy, particularly by fighting unemployment through creating jobs in the second labor market; 3. neighborhood centers should serve to strengthen urban life and proximity services; 4. the social, cultural and educational infrastructure is to be enhanced, especially for groups such as children, youth, women and senior citizens (migrants are not mentioned); 5. housing as well as the environment are to be revitalized and identification of tenants with their housing areas is to be enhanced; 6. ecological aspects of the neighborhood are to be enhanced (ARGEBAU 2000).