Poverty? What Poverty?

The designated Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) recently surprised with the statement that welfare recipients in Germany are not really poor.

Of course, welfare recipients are poor. They are relatively poor because their income is well below 50% of the median income; and they are absolutely poor in that they can afford essential goods but have little access to what is necessary to live in dignity.

What does that mean?

First of all, it means that a concept of poverty is still circulating in politics that originated in the image of early industrial misery, but today is hardly suitable for describing the kind of poverty that we encounter in Europe. That is why it is important to eliminate widespread deficits in the public use of the concept of poverty – and to sketch a contemporary picture of poverty.

The old understanding of poverty points to a material shortage. Until a few generations ago, poverty meant living without enough fat, sugar or heating and being exploited by hard work. Those who did not have enough money to reliably satisfy their needs and refuse exploitative work were poor. It is this combination of needs and money that has shaped the image of poverty to this day, at least when welfare recipients and “relatively” poor people are not regarded as “actually” poor.

The descriptive value of the old understanding of poverty is meagre because poor people in Europe are often condemned to inactivity and tend to consume too much fat, sugar and stimulants.

The lack that characterizes today’s poverty is therefore primarily not a material lack, but a lack that makes it difficult for people to live a life in dignity. This certainly includes having enough money, but the most important factors are deeper and therefore cannot be eliminated simply through transfer payments. They have to do with the fundamental way in which social positions are defined and relationships are structured. That is why poverty research is moving away from the monetary approach. It is being replaced by multidimensional approaches that look at various obstacles on the way to a decent life.


Such an obstacle is still unemployment, but not because it takes wages and bread, and not only because it endangers noise-free, low-emission and spacious housing, but above all because it undermines self-respect to make a commendable contribution with and for others.

A deeper dimension concerns the social construction of poverty, in which poverty marks a social status that is always also a stigma. He who is poor is a supplicant and a burden, someone who makes use of the services of strangers. It is accompanied by the awareness that responsibility for oneself has failed, a blame that should not exist in solidary societies.


Other dimensions that particularly affect welfare recipients for various reasons can be described as social, political and epistemic poverty. Social poverty threatens the ability to form valuable relationships and not to become lonely; political poverty has to do with shame, to step into the public sphere and to fight self-confidently for one’s own cause; and epistemic poverty means the experience of not being seen by others as credible and competent, as well as being excluded from forms of knowledge production.

In short, poverty here and now does not mean that someone is hungry or cold. The new understanding of poverty should not be played off against the old, but Supplement it. The new concept of poverty shows more strongly that people suffer social exclusions that lead to humiliation, loneliness and stress. If people among us do not have the dignity, if they do not experience the kind of solidarity necessary to live a full human life in self-respect, then society has failed and should take this responsibility. An unconditional right to a citizen’s income provides an answer worthy of consideration at least as to how this could be organised at the end of the working society. But here, too, it is not only money that needs to be distributed, but it is much more fundamentally about better access to education, work, political co-determination and a new form of coexistence or conviviality.

Some Remarks on Political Correctness

Political correctness has recently gained a bad reputation.

There are two reasons for this.

On the one hand (right) there are those who see themselves muzzled by good minds or “the media”, meaning elites from the liberal cosmopolitan milieu. Someone like me.

However, with the prefix “one will still be allowed to say”, one can continue to say everything that one should not say, because above all these elites want to be one, tolerant. In this way, a parallel society was created. Under the protection of the Internet, they have programmed their own code of political correctness – and said good-bye to the German guiding culture due to a narrow nationalism.

From the left, however, we are subjected to tighter and tighter language controls. The language regime no longer simply regulates the political space, but rather each and every interpersonal articulation.

This, in turn, fuels the feeling of getting a muzzle prescribed. People who speak like their parents are denounced as chauvinist, racist, nationalist or sexist.

What can philosophy contribute to this?

As I see it, political philosophy attributes two normative functions to political correctness:

First of all, it shows respect for the other person, whom one should not offend or humiliate in public utterances – and to whom we owe reasons for our opinion in public affairs.

Secondly, the function of political correctness is to place each other in a common semantical landscape. Basically, every society has and needs to have its peculiar variety of political correctness. By sharing a sense of taboos, idiomatic values or entire narratives of justice, the Other becomes one of us.

Political correctness is thus an expression of mutual respect and social inclusion and identity; in practice, however, it is increasingly experienced as a gesture of domination and distinction.

How did this happen?

In classical-liberal theory, political correctness is limited to the realm of the political. Anyone who has or claims power must follow the rules of the game of political correctness.

However, this division into private and public spaces cannot be maintained. Feminists pointed out at an early stage that discrimination starts with personal behaviour and attitudes. And rightly so. In the way in which the other is constructed linguistically, the question of how we look at each other and how we relate to each other is decided.

That is why emancipatory struggles begin with the everyday disregard manifested in politically incorrect speech. The act of correction is an act of self- empowerment of the disregarded, but it creates a totalitarian power itself, because it invades the private sphere, which can and will be abused.

What should one do?

Back to the liberal containment of political correctness? This path is blocked because it is just true that discrimination begins with the microsemantic appropriation of others.

Instead, should we ignore all those who feel harassed by the regiment of political correctness because they are holding on to the wrong? No, because this is a way of dominating those who find it more difficult to restructure their linguistic self-conception than our more flexibilized class.

Now, if we take a comprehensive perspective on justice, the Problem seems not that complicated.

The regiment of political correctness must be extended to all spaces in which meaning is formed, namely to the family, to the classroom, but also to social media.

But whenever persons feel excluded in the name of political correctness, courage is needed for political incorrectness. In order to cultivate this, a shelter is needed against inquisitorial assaults – such as the celebration of the incorrect in art, the unmasking of the overcorrect in humor, and also the critical freedom to question the respective rule of political correctness in university teaching.