A friend of mine is between jobs now, so I thought I'd accompany him to the welfare office as he applies for benefits. The office in Düsseldorf is called the Jobcenter (in English, of course), which is supposed to show you it's all about getting people back to work, not subsidizing layabouts.
German documentaries had led me to expect a crowded, loud, chaotic maelstrom of frustrated citizens and exasperated bureaucrats, something like Wiseman's Welfare. No soap: the Job Center is housed in a massive, clean, modern building, with freshly-renovated endless white corridors and comfortable blue fabric seats. I was expecting some urban social flair in the form of quaint posters about child abuse, alcoholism, and workplace safety, but the walls were nearly clean. The employees were quite friendly by German standards. You're issued a small paper ticket with a number on it. A Sachbearbeiter (SB) (specialist) comes and announces the next number, crossing it off a laminated display of 0-100. This seemed rather labor-intensive -- what about those infamous red 'Now Serving' signs you expect in every government office? The clients, as they're called, didn't look particularly down-and-out; they would fit in at any middle-class shopping center. About half of them seemed to be foreign, half looked German. They didn't look angry or despairing, just mildly bored. The wait to sign up for 'new customers', as they were called was about 30 minutes.
My friend got the standard package of benefits: a housing subsidy sufficient to keep you in a small apartment (you get to choose which one, as long as it's not too big), a couple of hundred euros as a (very modest) base benefit, and €5 for every job application you send out -- the expectation is that you should send out at least 10 per month. If you want something extra -- a new suit, vacation -- you have to fill out a special form asking for it. You also sign what's called an 'integration contract' in which you promise to try to find work and they promise to help you. You can just waltz right in there and they sign you up -- only later do they check to see whether you really need benefits. After you sign up for the bennies, you're then transferred to another SB who sizes up your potential on the job market and asks what sort of work you'd be willing to take. Depending on your needs, you might be sent on to other SB's who will sign you up for health insurance or co-ordinate schools.
A few caveats: (1) this was an office in Düsseldorf, one of the most prosperous places in Germany; (2) German unemployment is low right now; and (3) lots of 'ordinary' people (students, musicians between gigs, political party leaders) get some form of benefit temporarily throughout their lives. In all, the procedure was professional and the atmosphere much the same as you might expect at any German government office (and noticeably cleaner and quieter than most American government offices). I left thinking that although I'd rather not have to sign up for welfare in Germany, there are certainly worse fates.