Suddenly poor in the rich city

In Zurich tens of thousands of people are affected by poverty. They are hardly noticed. Oliver is one of them – a story of descent.

If Oliver learns a woman, he immediately declares: “I always say three things. First: I am poor. Second, I am sick. Thirdly: “Oliver stops. His gaze is glassy, his concentration fades. The conversation exhausted him. Oliver suffers from narcolepsy, colloquially called sleeping sickness. To tell his story, he has thrown an extra dose of medication. “Ritalin,” he says, making a pumping movement with his right forearm to underline the effect the drug should actually have.

Oliver is 45 years old, brush cut, round face, wide neck. He wears a blue T-shirt and jeans, looks inconspicuous, only the slightly red-eyed eyes fall. He sits in the kitchen of his cooperative apartment in the city of Zurich. On the wall are photos, drawings, and postcards of his son. Oliver wants to remain anonymous. His 9-year-old son is not to be teased on the broken place because of his story.

Oliver’s story of a long struggle against poverty, which seemed to be lost for a long time. Suddenly 326 francs a month would have had to suffice. The account was empty, five of them were pending. It was not enough. The rice stock was exhausted, and the next day his son would have come for lunch. That was just over a year ago. “I knew I had to go to the social service,” says Oliver. “Do you know how it feels?”

Poverty is largely invisible in Zurich because it forces merely the least to life on the street. Only during the Advent season, when the charities are attracting the attention of potential donors, they get something in the minds of the wealthy Zurich – when the doubting clerk in the Heilsarmee pot falls between Christmas and mulled wine for 6.50 francs.

19’748 people based in Zurich in 2014 social assistance, as figures from Statistics Zurich City show. This corresponds to 5.1 percent. In Switzerland and the canton of Zurich, the social assistance rate is 3.2 percent. In urban district 12, the social assistance rate is highest with 8.3 per cent. 2379 people are affected. The city has the lowest value of 7, 425 people or 1.2 percent. The risk groups include: single parent, breadwinner, families with three or more children, people living alone, migrants and people with little education.

Social welfare would have much more. A study has shown that in cities approximately one in seven who would be entitled to social assistance, not requested – out of shame, out of pride or foreigners out of fear of the consequences for the residence status. This number is even higher in the country.

Social assistance rate by city

The data used refer to the year 2014.

The City-Quartier in the city district 1 is a special case because there are also homeless people and people who are outside the city in a prison or home.

Is Zurich a good city to be poor? “Yes and no,” says Oliver. Both of these answers had to do with the wealth of the city: “Because people have so much, some of it drips down to me.” So he has often been given old pants by friends because he had no money to his torn ones replace.

On the other hand, life in the city has its price. The health insurance premiums are higher than in other places in the Canton, child care costs are expensive and rents have risen significantly over the last ten years. The real estate advisory firm Wüest Partner estimates that the offer rents have increased by 36.5 per cent since 2006 – for an average 4-room apartment with 110 square meters.  With the rising rents connect experts also the decline of the social assistance rate in Zurich. Because cheap housing has become scarce, many social welfare workers or people who are at risk of poverty are drawn into agglomeration communities or in the country.

Torn off: Because Oliver cannot afford new clothes, he has been given an old gift by friends.

Oliver could stay in his apartment. But: food, coffee, cinema, concerts, culture – everything costs more than in other places. Social life suffers from poverty. With the decline of the account, the friends have become fewer. The friends would rather go out than to visit Oliver in his apartment. He understands this because he would rather go out, but the money is missing.

The control data of Zurich show how well the people of Zurich ( without source Taxed earn). But they also show that not all incomes have risen sharply over the past 15 years the same. The average taxable income has increased by a little over 20 per cent in the city – among the single and married. The half taxed more, half less. For the single persons, it rose from 34’500 francs to 42’200 between 1999 and 2014, with the married couples from 63’100 to 76’500 francs. These figures may seem deep because they hide the fact that taxable income is well below gross income. An example from VermögensZentrum: A couple with two children living in a rented apartment in the canton of Zurich. It grossed 100,000 francs a year. According to all deductions, taxable income is more than 40 per cent below gross income, around 57,700 Swiss francs, which is below the average value of Zurich.

The taxable income of the rich has increased even more. If married couples were taxing 89’500 francs or more in 1999, they were among the richest 25 percent of the Zurich population. Among the few, the limit was 53,300 francs. 2014 belonged to the richest 25 percent, who as a married couple at least 119’000 francs and as an individual at least 66’000 francs taxed: This corresponds to an increase of scarcely 33 or around 23 percent.

And with the poorest 25 percent? There was also a rise in taxable income, but much less: the limit rose from a maximum of 17,600 francs to 19,600 (about 11 percent more) for the unmarried and a maximum of 44,200 to 48,800 (around 10 percent) The married couples.

Development of taxable income

Indexed values, divided into the  25th, the 50th and the 75th  percentile for the city of Zurich. The figures show the percentage development as compared to 1999.


Since he was 14, Oliver accompanies his illness. A typical symptom of narcolepsy is called cataplexy, paralysis. They occur, for example, when jetting when Oliver has a good hand. Because: “Feelings solve seizures made.” Oliver tried to arrange with narcolepsy: medication, yoga, meditation, naps. It all worked for a long time. In the Gymnasium, he was given an emergency bed in the cleaning room. While studying, he slept in the copying room. And because the work as an employee for the narcoleptic was difficult, he made itself in the year 2000 independent.

Costs a lot of money: Narcolepsy forces Oliver to swallow medicine every day.

The 45-year-old collects flyers, posters, flyers and newspapers from Zurich cultural institutions from a transparent plastic crate. He breathes quickly, proudly presenting his works from earlier times: “You can hang the posters right next to each other. You see, the patterns are flowing together. “He studied graphics and design for three years and finished in 1995. For 14 years, he earned from 50,000 to 60,000 francs as a self-employed person from home. His then partner, the mother of the common son, worked as a teacher and earned around 6000 francs a month. “I was never rich, but it was enough.”

If he tells his acquaintances today that he has no money, many can not classify it, says Oliver. For many Zurich, you are already poor, if you can not afford the latest iPhone. You can not imagine how it is, in the Caritas market to go shopping, to have to worry about which bread you buy to save a few cents. They do not even know the price. “I knew exactly what bread costs 2.80 francs and costs 3.40 francs.”

Olivers’ financial descent begins in 2009 with a retinal detachment in the left eye. This is followed by nine operations, nine general anesthesia, nine times two to three weeks of bed rest. The symptoms of narcolepsy with which he had arranged had become worse. It was no longer enough for him to lie down four or five times for twenty minutes a day. He has to sleep 60 to 90 minutes. His business is suffering. It can not deliver timely. Even customer base jump off.

In 2012 he and his partner separated. “Life with a narcoleptic is exhausting,” says Oliver. Now he pays the rent alone. He gets a partial IV pension. He would still have to work 40 percent. But his disease has now become too strong. The business has completely collapsed. His mother supports him unannounced with a few hundred francs a month. But she gets Alzheimer’s, needs care. With his father, he had long since prostrated himself.

About 1800 Swiss Francs IV and 156 Swiss pension fund pension are about 1630 Swiss francs fixed costs: rent, electricity, water, liability, health insurance plus franchise and deductibles, which Oliver has to claim for full physician visits and medicines every year. 326 francs remain for him per month. Invoices remain unpaid. Oliver applies for a full IV pension. It is said that she is coming soon. He’s waiting. It is operated five times – by the state and the health insurance. Then, in September 2015, Oliver becomes a welfare beneficiary. The full IV pension, which freed him from social assistance, was ultimately awarded to him only much later.

The poverty is not seen in Oliver and his flat. Office, bedroom, living room, kitchen – everything looks a bit untidy, but nothing is missing. He does not have a TV, but a big printer for it: “A gift!” He justifies himself. Like so much here in the apartment.

Poverty makes you look different before: poverty, homelessness, hunger. Therefore, you walk into a “minefield” when dealing with poverty in Switzerland as the “Observer” writes. Social welfare recipients are often regarded as spoiled, lazy parasites. In Switzerland, everyone could work if he wanted to. Who can afford a TV or a mobile phone is not poor. Andrea Gärtner sees this differently. The social worker works in mobile social counseling at Caritas Zurich. She advises daily families in District 12, the circle with the highest social assistance rate. What Gärtner says about common prejudices, you see in the video:

Andrea Gärtner, a social worker of Caritas Zurich, talks about prejudice against social assistance.

Approximately 400 people last winter slept in Pfuusbus of pastor Sieber in Zurich – across the state is estimated the number of homeless at around 600. They correspond to the poverty slump, but thousands of poverty sufferers, like Oliver, do not. So what is really meant to be “poor”?

To answer the question is difficult. There are different approaches.  Absolute Definition: The poverty line corresponds to the social subsistence level according to guidelines of SKOS, Swiss Conference for Social Welfare. For an individual like Oliver, this means: monthly 986 francs for the basic requirement, plus rent, plus health insurance. For a family with two children, the basic requirement is 2110 francs.

The relative definition: According to the Zurich City Council is considered at risk of poverty, who earns less than 60 percent of median income. The poverty level is half the available average income. In the city of Zurich, 2014 according to tax data was 43’332 single (27.2 percent) and 9536 married couples (19.9 percent).  Overall, the share has increased by a few percentage points since 1999 – by 2.6 for the single and 4.1 for the married. The relative poverty in city district 12 rose most.

Development of relative poverty by city circle

The lines show the change in relative poverty since 1999. Move the cursor over the red dots to see how many people are taxing less than 50% of the average income.


The calculation of relative poverty, based on tax data, however, has some weaknesses and is therefore always criticized. They overestimated the number of affected households and persons because they are not recognized concubinage. It also includes students and people who have consciously chosen a low-income lifestyle. But poverty is a problem only when people have no choice. At the same time, the relative measurement underestimates the number of affected persons, because source-tax-exempt foreigners are not taken into account. As a rule, those with an income below 120,000 francs are source-taxed.

Therefore, poverty research considers it inadequate to take the purse as a guideline. It is generally agreed that poverty is more complex and also intangible factors include. Factors such as housing, leisure, health, social contacts, education, and satisfaction.

Despite Zen: The financial downturn was a “hard test” for Oliver.

“Yoga and Zen meditation have helped me a lot in dealing with my illness,” says Oliver, “even when I arrived at the bottom a year ago.” He had internalized that he was doing little to get the best out of it. But it would be a lie that he just put it away. It was a “hard trial” of his philosophy of life. He was ashamed.

Again and again, Oliver speaks of the fact that he can well imagine that such a descent causes depression or suicidal ideation: “I did not have it,” he asserts. But whoever has no money to care for in this city and for other people, comes to his limits. “The worst thing is when people suffer from your poverty, which can make even less likely than yourself – such as my son.” And do many: Approximately one-third of welfare recipients are children.

Oliver became thin-skinned. For example, when his ex, with whom he usually maintains a good relationship, traveled with her son to Italy. She told him about it before the holidays, he says. She said she had told him a long time ago. No matter who is right, at that moment it made him angry. Suddenly he had “structural violence” felt: “The Bank raised simply so the writing fees for a few francs, although it has the digitization less effort.” Or as the debit card for weeks did not work: The Bank sought the culprits Publisher of the card, the card issuer at the apparatus. “I was denied legitimate access to my money for weeks,” says Oliver. He had become a little loud in the lobby. “The security service has led me out.” Suddenly people understand why people are rushing out of office.

After a long wait, Oliver got a full IV pension. It is thus one of the 60 percents that can leave the social assistance again respectively after about a year. He opens a table on his notebook: “Budget: Stand 23.10.2016” “For a few weeks now, I am now out of social welfare,” he says. Oliver smiles like a child who gets exhausted from a long day still a bedspool. The expenses in the table are divided into three categories: the basic requirement is 2622 francs (rent, food, health insurance), in those expenditures, which “all benefits” 505.75 francs (yoga, expenses for the son, Internet) and in luxury 477.20 francs (Contribution for the Swiss narcolepsy society, culture, gifts).

Oliver is confident: “I can do it.”

Oliver will now receive about 3600 francs a month. IV pension, supplementary benefits, child and pension fund pension. Unforeseen issues can still throw Oliver out of the way. He still lives on the poverty line. “I can do it. I’ll get through that,” he says. When he get to know a woman, but he still says: “I am poor. I’m sick and … “, he finds it again,” … I want any more children. “Now Oliver breaks off the conversation. He has to lie down – narcolepsy.

Oliver writes a mail a few days later. It was important to him to say something conclusive: “I see myself as one of many who are so often not seen, not even from those who are closest to them.” That is one more reason why he merely anonymizes his story Would like to return. As a substitute. As one of thousands.