Poverty in Germany and its impacts on society
Who is poor in Germany?
Eva Maria Welskop-Deffaa: Most people have a picture in their mind’s eye of what poverty looks like. They see the unhoused queuing up in front of the train station mission for a hot cup of tea, and they have an inkling that getting by on 1,000 euro a month is impossible. People who rely on basic security benefits are considered poor by 70 per cent of the population. 80 percent say that people who rely on welfare services are poor. And two thirds of the population deem those who have no secure income as poor, as set forth in the German Federal Government’s 6th Report on Poverty and Wealth.
According to official data, the so-called risk-of-poverty threshold lies at an income of slightly more than 14,000 euro per year - those who have less at their disposal are considered poor. It is hidden behind this number what makes poverty so grim: a poorly insulated flat, ruined health, cheap food. Income-based poverty leads to exclusion: no cinema at the weekend, no spontaneous excursions with the kids in the summer. No courage to face the future.
What does it mean to live in poverty?
It almost always means living in inadequate housing. In a flat which is too expensive and/or too small, and which is far away from one’s place of work or children’s kindergarten. On average, people who live alone and are at risk of poverty spend more than half their income on housing costs. That doesn’t leave much for food and clothing.
Living in poverty means most of all this as well: living in insecurity. A life in which getting through the day exhausts one’s personal energy. Like a dark shadow, the knowledge that the next blow of fate could well destroy the progress which has been achieved with such effort lies on people with low incomes and low levels of education. This is the case if an employer goes bankrupt or if a storm causes an old tree to fall on a motorbike.
Once poor - always poor. Is that just the way it is?
Yes, all the data confirms this: someone who is poor in Germany in the year 2023 will very likely still be poor in 2028. This is a distressing development of the past 50 years. In the 1980s, 60 per cent of those who were poor had risen on the income scale five years later. Today, 70 per cent of those who were poor in the previous five-year period are still poor in the subsequent five-year period. Sufficiently remunerated workplaces for unskilled or semi-skilled workers have disappeared. The generally large increase in prosperity in Germany has bypassed people with low levels of education.
What effect does the currently high level of inflation have on poor people?
Those who need to live from hand to mouth cannot cope with the sudden rise in prices that we have experienced since the year 2021 and even more so since the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. That means: debts are increasing - money owed to one’s energy provider, landlord, friends and relatives.
Or people try to save money on food - the first thing to disappear from the shopping list are fresh fruit and vegetables because they are more expensive than everything else. Not only for those who rely on social transfers to get by, but also for store cashiers and warehouse workers, for self-employed people or young families who have bought a home and whose repayment scheme has suddenly become a huge burden.
«Poverty risks and poverty fears are spreading like wildfire.»
What does this do to people?
Poverty-based risks and poverty-based anxieties are spreading like wildfire. This is one of the major issues of the past few years.
When one’s income is no longer enough to go on holiday in the summer, fears of losing one’s social status grow. Instead of hope and confidence that one’s own efforts will pay off in the medium to long term, poverty-based anxieties grow along with the crises - along with the pandemic, energy crisis and climate crisis.
This is evident, for instance, in the fact that many people overestimate the proportion of poor people in the population. In addition, many analyses show that the health, economic and social consequences of the pandemic are very unevenly distributed.
What does this mean for our society and how we live together?
When the feeling spreads that we are standing on unstable ground, there are political consequences. In regions experiencing economic decline in particular, anti-establishment parties gain members, hostility towards foreigners increases, solidarity decreases. "We’re all in the same storm, but not in the same boat” - this is the perception of the lower middle class, especially when their gaze turns to the wealthy.
«Critical interest in wealth is increasing.»
How does society view the wealthy?
I perceive that critical interest in wealth is growing. For years and years, the dominant narrative was this: every man is the architect of his own fortune, anyone can improve their station in life and those who get rich as a result of their efforts should also be allowed to enjoy this wealth without feeling guilty. The social obligation inherent in property was "settled” with the progressive taxation of income, the inheritance tax was eased. I see a shift here: the legitimacy of wealth is increasingly being called into question. 74 per cent of the population assume that the main reason for wealth is the initial family situation - only 68 per cent view professional training as the main reason and 46 per cent view one’s willingness to work hard as decisive. Approximately one third agree with the statement that, in Germany, only those who have rich parents can become rich.
Moreover, the lifestyle of the rich is hard on the environment, their CO2 emissions are many times higher than those of the poor - at a time when we need to massively decrease our CO2 emissions due to the climate crisis. The emissions of the one are in direct competition with the emissions of the other - an experience we’ve made only seldom in the growth society of the past 60 years.
Rules are needed to govern how we fairly distribute scarce goods without overwhelming the ecosystem as a whole. Dare to have more commons, more understanding about distribution issues - we have to manage this in collaboration. Charities are assigned a special responsibility in this.