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.