Ms. Mast, you grew up as the third oldest of four children of a single parent. Your mother was a part-time cleaner and had to supplement it with social security because your father didn't pay maintenance after the separation. Did you feel poor as a child? I didn't feel poor, but sometimes I felt left behind. But there were always people who supported me.
In which moments did you particularly feel how tight money was? For example when it came to clothing. I could never just go into town and go shopping. If something was urgently needed, my mother ordered it through Otto-Versand because she could pay in installments. Of course I also had to apply clothing. I remember having to wear my cousin's flannel pants at my confirmation. I thought that was terrible. Otherwise, I had exactly one pair of jeans in the closet. It always had to be washed at the weekend.
Where did you still have to limit yourself? While eating?No. We had a garden and therefore always had lots of fruit and vegetables. But when I was a teenager, my friends would always go to the nearest big city for ice cream on Sundays. I never went because I couldn't afford anything like that. We also had to submit an application for funding to the office before every school trip. And later at the Jusos meetings I always have my Tupperware container with tomato salad with me while the others ordered a pizza.
Have you noticed your mother's money worries? Yes. If the washing machine was broken or the refrigerator was broken, it was a huge issue at home. For a long time, my mother didn't know that she could apply for social assistance in her situation. When she knew it, it was still a difficult step because she was ashamed to go to office. She has worked hard her whole life. I started working at an early age, such as delivering newspapers or helping with inventory in stores, in order to relieve my mother's financial burden. And I accompanied her every time she went to the office and wrote the applications early. At the same time, my siblings always supported my path.
You first went to secondary school and only switched to business high school in the 7th grade. Because your teachers didn't trust you to graduate from high school as a child from a poor family? The secondary school recommendation after the fourth grade was linked to the sentence: "Your parents have just separated, there's so much going on with you, try it later High school." And that's what I did.
A strange reason. But in retrospect it was right and I went my own way. I also always had teachers who supported me. Shortly after I moved to high school, I got a 6 in English dictation. I cried like a castle dog and wanted to go back to secondary school. Then an older teacher took me aside, patted me comfortingly on the shoulder and said: "You can do it, girl."
What helped you make it? My mother always believed in me and trusted me to go my own way. Even though she didn’t know exactly what I was doing. When I was already studying after my banking apprenticeship, she always asked me: "What does school do?" I tried to explain that I was going to college now, how it worked - it was a whole new world for me. It took me a while to understand that for her, learning was connected to school.
What motivated you to go into politics? I became interested in politics from an early age and was involved in the school community. I was very influenced by the topic of the environment. For example, I remember how I was full of enthusiasm at home and wanted us to buy milk in bottles instead of in tetra packs to avoid waste. But we couldn't afford it, so we continued to buy milk from bags. It became clear to me right then that everyone must be able to afford climate and environmental protection, which is why I joined the Jusos and the SPD and not the Greens. I also learned early on how much even small changes in the law had an impact on our lives. We were totally dependent on it at home.
For example?I applied for social assistance for my mother. What struck me was the change that you have to pay back half of your student loan. In my case, this meant that I had to start my professional life all at once with a loan because I had no financial support from home. That was a hurdle for me - that's why I did an apprenticeship first. If there had been tuition fees back then, I would never have studied for fear of the mountain of debt.
Your father didn't support you one bit? He left my mother when I was in the third grade. My mother did not receive regular maintenance from him. During my studies, I always had to submit both parents' income statements for my BaföG application, but my father often didn't give me his. That's why I often didn't get any student loans for months. Once I even had to sue to submit the income statement. Another time he earned so much that my student loan was reduced. It was almost 100 German marks – that was a lot of money for me. Unfortunately, I had to hire a lawyer who then demanded the money. Every month – for a year.
Did you cut off your contact with him? That wasn't an active decision on my part - it just happened.
With your biography, you are one of the exceptions in the Bundestag. Is that sometimes an advantage? I wouldn't call it an advantage, but what shapes me is that I know how hard life can be. Sometimes I am asked: What is the most important thing you have ever achieved politically? I could answer with the minimum wage or the basic pension, because I have been actively involved in both. But for me it was something different: in the last legislature we ensured that poor children receive funding for tutoring even if they are not yet at acute risk of being transferred. I know that this can have a lasting impact on a biography and opens up new opportunities for children. And that's exactly what shows that it makes a difference who negotiates laws and with what biography. And that is an advantage for many children with a similar biography.
Does it annoy you that some MPs make big speeches about people in poverty without really knowing the situation? Yes, that annoys me sometimes. Because it's often about people like my mother, who didn't choose this life, but ended up in their precarious situation through a stroke of fate. Some politicians act as if this is happening out of laziness. My mother deserved the Federal Cross of Merit for what she did for us children. She raised four children, all of whom are going their own way. Even today, many men and women like my mother back then struggle to organize everyday life under the most adverse conditions and to give their children safety and security. This is not sufficiently seen in the political debate. There are countless mothers like mine who do everything for their children and always put themselves behind. That's why some of the debates that take place around citizens' benefit or basic child welfare are so shabby. From the right it is always said that the money would not go to the children anyway, but would be used by the parents. My biography shows me that it is different - and many studies prove this.
What can politicians do to counteract the impression that they no longer have a clue about reality? We need to talk more about our biographies and better explain where we come from politically. Of course I also have a life beyond the Bundestag, as a foster mother I have my own impressions. My two children make me and my politics richer and I am grateful that I can accompany them on their journey. This is a daily and sometimes difficult balancing act that many families often find even harder. At the same time, our democratic commitment is very deliberately incited by the AfD. This affects the many volunteers involved in local politics even more. This is the area of tension in which we operate.
Like your mother, many people are still ashamed to apply for social assistance. What can politics do? Unfortunately, going to office is still stigmatized for many. But you don't have to be ashamed of applying for social benefits. Nevertheless, it should be our duty to ensure that even more services reach people more easily and automatically.
Citizens' money should also contribute to this. Now the debate is raging: how could this happen under an SPD chancellor? That has nothing to do with the chancellor. The Union is primarily to blame for this, as it claims every day that work isn't worth it, even though it's not true. Work is always worth it. You always earn several hundred euros more than if you don't work. Because we have also greatly improved the housing benefit and the child allowance - both money that you get if you earn enough for yourself but there is not enough for your children. Yes, you have to apply for it, but it helps and I can only say to the citizens: Apply for it - don't wait as long as my mother.
The SPD still lost the debate about citizen's money. The CDU approved the citizen's money a year ago - including Friedrich Merz and Jens Spahn. The Federal Constitutional Court has told us that we need a humane subsistence level. Citizens’ money is nothing else. Now permanent placement in work is the clear goal. That’s why we are strengthening training and further education. The promise is: Everyone can rely on the welfare state. Strokes of fate can happen. But we also expect you to do everything you can to get into work. The coalition defended this project strongly in the Bundestag. That was a really good traffic light moment.
But your own coalition partner, the FDP, wanted to stop the increase in citizen's money at the turn of the year and called for a zero round for 2025. Another traffic light moment? It would not have been possible to stop the citizen's money increase at such short notice. The amount is not just thrown into the dice, but is very finely balanced by experts in a complex calculation. That is why it is by no means an unconditional basic income. It is basic security. It's worth working at any time. And if you want work to be worthwhile, you also have to ensure higher wages - we did that by increasing the minimum wage to 12 euros, which, by the way, the CDU didn't go along with.
War refugees from Ukraine also receive citizen's allowance, which is likely to cost the state several billion euros next year. Citizens' money primarily relieves the burden on municipalities and federal states, as the federal government bears a large part of the costs. Now the aim is to get Ukrainians who have fled war into work more quickly. There is now a job turbo for people who are just completing their language courses. This is the most effective way to reduce costs - not through cuts - but through placement in permanent work.
What is your New Year's resolution for the traffic lights? Less public debate about detailed issues and, as is now the case with the household, going outside together if there is a solution.
With respect: “together” in this case means that Scholz, Lindner and Habeck negotiated the budget practically alone. First of all, they negotiated mainly as a group of three. Now the 2024 budget comes to parliament and the members of the Bundestag. The process is not over yet. The budget is passed in the Bundestag. Of course we will tackle it again at one point or another.
Do you actually still have friends from your youth? Yes, of course, I'm very grateful for that.
How do they actually react to what is currently happening in Berlin? They can easily separate between the SPD politician Katja Mast and her friend Katja. And of course, like everywhere else, they don't always like everything we do here. But they also ask why things are the way they are: are there reliable daycare opening times, affordable housing and how will Germany develop economically?
Did your mother live to see your political career? She died a few years ago. But she saw me get into the Bundestag. She was often approached by me at the bus stop in our hometown. For a long time she felt stigmatized as a single parent on welfare despite working. That's why when I had events at school or with the gymnastics club as a child, she usually didn't come along. Because she was ashamed of her situation. Now her daughter was in the Bundestag. She was very proud then.