Can science eradicate poverty?


Graffiti in Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg. Photo: Karosa

The faces of poverty
Causes, consequences and possible solutions

Poverty is a multifaceted phenomenon. It can be publicly recognizable, for example in the form of homeless people or people begging for alms in the street, only hinting at itself latently or only perceptible in private surroundings. Particularly serious in a wealthy country like Germany is the increasing in-work poverty, i.e. the fact that you cannot generate sufficient income with your own work. The extent of hidden poverty should also not be underestimated, as not all those affected make use of the state aid to which they are entitled and are therefore not visible in official statistics. In many cases, several burdens such as insecure housing conditions, unemployment, lack of training, illness, etc. come together at the same time. Groups particularly at risk of poverty include single parents, the unemployed, large families, people with no or low school-leaving qualifications, children from families affected by poverty and social inequality, and women in old age. What they all have in common is the feeling that they are worthless in this society.

This digirama presents studies, essays and reports that shed light on the individual structural facets of poverty, on the effects of social inequality on business and politics, and on possible ways out of poverty. The overall picture reveals a complex bundle of causes, manifestations and consequences of poverty, which must be taken into account when looking for suitable measures to combat poverty and social inequality. It also becomes clear that the question of distribution, which has hardly been discussed for a long time, has recently become more explosive.

The articles are sorted in descending chronological order.


Frank Decker / Volker Best / Sandra Fischer / Anne Küppers
Trust in democracy. How satisfied are people in Germany with the government, state and politics?
Friedrich Ebert Foundation 2019 (For a better tomorrow)

“Less than half of the people in Germany are satisfied with the way democracy works in our country. Two thirds believe that future generations will be worse off. That is the worrying result of the present study. ”This clearly shows the connection between falling trust in democracy and growing social inequality:“ Of those who are dissatisfied with social policy, almost two thirds are dissatisfied with the way democracy works . Of those who notice an increase in social inequality, 60 percent are dissatisfied. (2)

Pavel Grigoriev / Rembrandt Scholz / Vladimir M Shkolnikov
Socioeconomic differences in mortality among 27 million economically active Germans: a cross-sectional analysis of the German Pension Fund data
BMJ Open 2019

The authors, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR), have for the first time examined how education, income and employment status affect mortality on the basis of a state dataset from the German Pension Insurance. “According to this, unemployment doubles the risk of death. And for the most disadvantaged group of men in the East, death is eight times as likely as for the best off. ”(From thePress release of the MPIDR)

Georg Wenzelburger
Those who defend the welfare state cut benefits particularly sharply. On the effect of parties on welfare state reform policy
DVPW blog, April 8, 2019

Which parties are pursuing a social state cut policy and which are expanding the welfare state? Taking up the debate on this question, Georg Wenzelburger outlines a study in this short blog post that underpins the thesis that “the more welfare state-friendly the ideological position of the government, the more likely it is that the welfare state cut policy is more likely”.

Marcel Helbig, Rita Nikolai
Do the socially disadvantaged students get the “best” schools? An exploratory study on the relationship between school quality and the social composition of schools using Berlin as an example
WZB Discussion Paper P-2019-002, March 2019

In their study of the relationship between the social mix at a school and its quality, Marcel Helbig and Rita Nikolai come to the following conclusion: “Overall, we come to the conclusion that the socially most disadvantaged schools also have the most unfavorable framework conditions. Staff coverage is poorer in socially disadvantaged schools, lessons have to be replaced more often or are canceled, and more teachers without a teaching degree work on them than in schools with a better social composition. In addition, the quality areas measured in the school inspections at these schools are worse. "(25 f.)

Kristin Biesenbender / Timm Leinker
Income and wealth inequality. Empirical findings and political options for action
Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Economic and Social Policy Department) 2019

The publication documents a conference of the Kocheler Kreis for Economic Policy in January 2019. 75 representatives from science, administration and political practice dealt with the question of the unequal distribution of income and wealth. The most important results from the presentations and discussions are presented briefly and concisely in this paper.

Stefan Liebig
The tablets as a failure of the German welfare state? You can not say it like that
DIW weekly report 10/2018

In this short comment, Stefan Liebig criticizes a shortened view of the work of the food banks as an expression of increasing poverty and a failure of the social systems. Rather, it is important to examine the motives of those who take up the offerings of the food banks in more detail in order to identify the need for action for politics and the social systems more precisely.

Anselm Rink
The riddle of inequality. Historical hereditary customs still have an impact today
WZB Mitteilungen Issue 161, September 2018

“Why are some societies more equal than others? We argue that fair inheritances within families favor equality. German congregations, which historically have inherited fairly, still elect more women in local parliaments and have fewer aristocrats in the social elite. At the same time, it can be shown that fair inheritances promote income inequality. So there is a 'tradeoff' between social and economic inequality. "(Abstract)

Peter Kupka / Joachim Möller / Philipp Ramos Lobato / Joachim Wolff
Participation for unemployed furthest away from the labor market through a social labor market - opportunities and risks of a necessary instrument
Journal for Economic Policy, Volume 67, Issue 2: 154-163, August 2018

In order to improve the chances of social participation for the long-term unemployed, the coalition agreement agreed on the public promotion of jobs under the title “Promotion of participation in the labor market”. In this contribution the requirements and questions of the design of such an instrument of the social labor market are discussed. Among other things, the authors point out that it is crucial “to ensure as much as possible that only a group of people who would otherwise have almost no employment opportunity is actually funded. Misallocations would be fatal as they not only waste public funds but also personal resources. The care taken in the selection of people thus determines the success of the instrument. ”(160) They see practical implementation hurdles in inadequate support structures and the unwillingness of private companies to participate in the social labor market.

Stefan Stuth / Brigitte Schels / Markus Promberger / Kerstin Jahn / Jutta Allmendinger
Precariousness in Germany ?!
WZB Discussion Paper P 2018-004, August 2018

The structural change in gainful employment has led to the development of precarious employment relationships and cuts in social security. The authors of this study ask about the characteristics and grades of precariousness in Germany and have examined SOEP data for the period from 1993 to 2012. The largest group of people in persistently precarious employment and household situations are therefore women and especially mothers, followed by fathers of prime working age and young men without vocational training. However, a learned profession is no guarantee of adequate income: “The risk of being precariously employed is lowest when the learned profession corresponds to the occupation exercised.” (35) Overall, the analysis shows that “about one eighth of the German workforce [...] is permanently or at least for long periods of precarious employment and lives under precarious circumstances. Labor and social policy would be well advised to get more involved in this matter ”(40).

Rudolf Zwiener
More and better paid work instead of “retiring at 70”. Model simulation of a successful growth and employment policy to cope with demographic change
Hans Böckler Foundation, IMK Policy Brief, June 2018

The author deals with the consequences of demographic change for old-age provision. He emphasizes that "supposed solutions [...] do not just include a higher retirement age, higher contribution rates or a reduction in the pension level, as is often claimed" (2). Against this abbreviated view he drafts an economic growth scenario with which “it can be shown that it is possible to achieve an additional increase in the workforce of around 2 million people in a 15-year period under realistic framework conditions. Higher real wages and a simultaneous increase or stabilization of the pension level significantly improve the real income situation of pensioners during this period. "(8)

Stefan Bach / Peter Haan / Michelle Harnisch
Progressive social contributions can relieve low incomes
DIW weekly report 13 + 14/2018

Against the background of the reform of social contributions envisaged in the coalition agreement, this article examines the effects of various relief concepts. Accordingly, the “government program of the grand coalition [...] offers little relief for households with lower and middle incomes. The planned dismantling of the solidarity surcharge is of little benefit to these groups. As employees, you will benefit, at least in the short term, from the return to equal financing of the statutory health insurance and the relief of unemployment contributions. [...] Progressive social contributions, on the other hand, "the authors recommend," can relieve lower and middle incomes in a more targeted manner. "(284)

Florian Buhlmann / Eric Sommer / Holger Stichnoth
Distributional effects of the grand coalition's reform plans: pensioners and families are the main beneficiaries
ZEW Policy Brief 2, March 2018

The coalition agreement between the CDU / CSU and the SPD provides for various measures to provide economic relief for broad sections of the population. The authors determine the redistributive effects of individual planned projects such as the abolition of the solidarity surcharge, the increase in child benefit and child allowance or the reduction of the contribution to unemployment insurance and other measures. With all the differentiated presentations of the respective measures, the following finding can be summarized: “The calculations identify families of the middle class and older citizens as the main beneficiaries of the reforms. Households at the upper and lower end of the income distribution benefit the least in relative terms. "(4)

Alex Wischnewski
Who is the “crisis winner” here? Effects of neoliberal state restructuring and a political shift to the right on the lives of women in Germany
Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Berlin 2018

Germany is generally seen as the winner of the global financial crisis of 2009. Nonetheless, there is growing social inequality, which, as Alex Wischnewski shows in this study, is primarily at the expense of women. "Despite the overall positive current account with which Germany came through the crisis, the national debt exploded as a result of short-term economic stimulus programs, which was answered with rigid savings targets". For the author, the austerity policy implemented by the German government from 2010 explains “only part of the social developments that currently oppose the emancipation of women.” She looks back on the long-term consequences of the restructuring and dismantling of the welfare state that began in the 1980s and names starting points how a policy for women can be consistently linked with questions of employment relationships and redistribution and welfare state reforms.

Holger Stichnoth et al.
Do the children receive cash benefits?
Published by the Bertelsmann Foundation, Gütersloh 2018

The publicly debated fear that cash benefits paid out directly to children would or could be misappropriated by families led, among other things, to the introduction of the Education and Participation Package (BuT) in 2011. It provides for children and adolescents receiving transfers to be encouraged expressly in the form of benefits in kind. However, this procedure requires a high administrative effort and due to the bureaucratic hurdles, the services were often not used at all. Against this background, a research team from the ZEW - Leibniz Center for European Economic Research, commissioned by the Bertelsmann Foundation, examined to what extent this mistrust is justified.

The conclusion is: “In summary, neither the previous studies nor the empirical studies presented here indicate a systematic misappropriation of cash benefits by parents. Rather, the analysis of child benefit shows that it is used sensibly for children's educational and leisure activities and that the family's living situation improves as a result of the child benefit. The fear of massive misappropriation of a participation allowance or a basic child benefit, which would particularly support children in the lower income bracket more financially than before, is not justified on the basis of the empirical results available here. Since benefits in kind and earmarked cash benefits such as the education and participation package never reach the children in full due to the high administrative costs, we advocate at least a reversal of the burden of proof and a waiver of general suspicion against parents in low-income households in view of the study situation. "(11)

Silke Tophoven / Torsten Lietzmann / Sabrina Reiter / Claudia Wenzig
Poverty Patterns in Childhood and Adolescence. Longitudinal considerations of child poverty
Bertelsmann Foundation, Gütersloh, October 2017

In order to take a closer look at the duration and dynamics of child poverty, the team of authors from the Institute for Employment Research “based on the data of the PASS [representative longitudinal study“ Panel Labor Market and Social Security ”, annot. der Red.] Children and the income situation of the households in which they live examined longitudinally over five points in time ”(52). This enables a differentiated view of temporary and permanent poverty situations. As a result, four poverty patterns were identified, the attribution of which depends on criteria such as employment status, number of children, migration background and parents' qualifications. Overall, around a third of the children could be assigned to one of these poverty patterns. In addition, there was a high degree of continuity in the income and poverty situation during the observation period. "Changes to other income levels and thus also a (permanent) transition from reference to SGB II to a secure income level are rather rare." (14)
(Download page:


National Poverty Conference
Gender poverty risk. Poverty situation of women in Germany
Berlin, October 2017

Short contributions by women authors from the environment of the National Poverty Conference are brought together, which shed light on the different facets of poverty among women. In her introductory contribution, Gisela Notz clearly demonstrates that poverty has “many female faces”. For example, women become poor because they usually do more unpaid work than men, because they often have less access to education, because they earn less than men, because they do not live in a so-called normal family or because of the pension system does not correspond to the reality of their life. The measures and proposed solutions derived from the individual analyzes address the structural causes of gender inequality. Demands include the abolition of spouse splitting and the abandonment of the 'benefit communities' introduced by Hartz IV as well as the creation of part-time training positions for young women with children, the upgrading of female-dominated professions or the overcoming of the gender pay gap.

Gustav A. Horn / Jan Behringer / Sebastian Gechert / Katja Rietzler / Ulrike Stein
What can be done about inequality? Economic policy proposals for reduced inequality
Hans Böckler Foundation, IMK Report 129, September 2017

Social inequality in Germany has increased since the late 1990s and has solidified at a relatively high level. This study by the IMK Institute for Macroeconomics and Business Cycle Research was carried out in the run-up to the 2017 federal election. In it, the authors explain the extent of income inequality: “A breakdown into three income groups shows that the upper income bracket was able to increase its real income considerably from 1991 to 2014, while the middle and especially the lower income bracket lagged significantly behind. The middle class shrank and the proportion of the population on the fringes of the distribution increased. ”(1) The proposed measures to reduce inequality and poverty include, in addition to more effective taxation of corporate profits, the consistent punishment of private tax evasion, the increase in the top tax rate and a reactivation of the wealth tax , the introduction of a financial transaction tax and the reform of inheritance and property taxes. In addition, child benefit should be increased and the collective bargaining system strengthened, as well as the minimum wage "temporarily increasing more strongly and unemployment benefit II linked to its development" (1).

Sabine Huebgen
Risk of poverty single parent
From politics and contemporary history (APuZ 30-31 / 2017), July 21, 2017

A third of the approximately 1.6 million single mothers or fathers were at risk of poverty in 2015, writes Sabine Hübgen and asks why “single parents in Germany are three times as likely to be at risk of poverty than other families with children”. Following a conceptual clarification of the term “single parent”, she sheds light on the three areas that are of central importance for material and social well-being: the family, the labor market and the welfare state. The reasons for the increased risk of poverty can be located in the “interaction of these three bodies”, according to Hübgen. For example, the persisting gender-specific norms, which as a rule ascribe the responsibility of unpaid child-rearing work to women, as well as the related structural obstacles in the reconciliation of paid work and child-raising work, are problematized. The need for action and reform proposals she finally outlined include the abolition of spouse splitting, the expansion of further training opportunities for the low-skilled, incentives for family-friendly working conditions and the expansion of childcare as well as comprehensive access to information about social benefits and for single parents and their easier application.

Dorothee Spannagel et al.
Activation policy and in-work poverty
Hans Böckler Foundation, WSI Report 36, July 2017

In order to fight poverty and unemployment, many EU member states follow an activation policy model. Linked to this are measures on the three levels of investment labor market policy, conditionality of transfer payments and increased personal responsibility. The assumption underlying the mission statement that employment growth automatically reduces poverty is questioned in this study. On the basis of a comparison between 18 EU member states, the authors examine the influence of labor market and social policy instruments on in-work poverty. The findings show that "activation policy is not a panacea for the growing social problems in Europe"; in particular, strict conditionality means that “the poor unemployed become poor workers” (16). Particularly striking is Germany, which for the period from 2004 to 2014 "has by far the highest increase in in-work poverty" (6). Therefore, a further containment of the low-wage sector and the promotion of living conditions are indicated. In addition, a paradigm shift in job placement is required: "Away from the activation and the priority of direct and fast placement, towards individual support and empowerment of job seekers" (16) while at the same time defusing the rules of reasonableness.

Hans Böckler Foundation (Ed.)
Does Inequality Harm Growth?
Böckler Impulse 08/2017

It outlines recent research results on the negative effects of social inequality on economic development. The stated losses in economic growth are explained, among other things, by the fact that "lower income groups can invest less in education as inequality rises, which weakens social mobility and the development of so-called human capital."

Marcel Fratzscher
Poverty endangers democracy
Zeit Online, Fratzscher’s distribution questions, March 17, 2017

In this column, Marcel Fratzscher explains the democratic dimension of poverty. It is about an interplay of several factors. It is well known that material poverty is often linked to a lack of social and political participation. This would jeopardize the functioning of our democracy and the prosperity of all. “The increasing risk of poverty leads to a greater dependence on the welfare state. This reduces the possibilities of those affected to invest in their own education and that of their children and to contribute their skills to society and the economy. But it also damages the efficiency of the welfare state, which has to provide services for more and more people and can therefore do this less and less well and less precisely. ”In particular, the increased risk of poverty for people in work should therefore, according to Fratzscher,“ be a wake-up call for politics and be a central theme in political discourse ”.

AWO Landesverband Mecklenburg-Vorpommern e. V. (ed.)
Aspects of poverty in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania
Research report on behalf of the Arbeiterwohlfahrt Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, September 2015

Compared to the national average, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is particularly badly affected by poverty. As a result of structural change, many people have lost their economic livelihood. "Despite all the progress, we still find the highest unemployment, the lowest incomes and often the highest prices for services of general interest" ), the report says. It is the result of a study that was carried out in a larger research network and the aim of which was to describe the situation of people affected by poverty in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in a spatially detailed manner and to present its social effects. It was also a matter of making clear the differences in life situations and the extent to which the risk of poverty was affected, while “avoiding hasty, blatant, generalized exacerbations” (6). In the interviews, isolation and poverty in social participation are highlighted as particularly serious, and energy and mobility poverty as well as the consolidation of poverty biographies are also problematized. There are also indications that single men could represent a (further) poverty group in the future. The study also aimed to develop political strategies and recommendations for action on the basis of the spatial and structural conditions. These start at different levels and range from income improvements and targeted programs for individual risk groups to improving social inclusion and enabling municipalities. (A short and a long version are available for download under the link above.)