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Alexander Foitzik / Werner Schönig {*}

"An Ethical, not a Political Problem"

A Discussion on Poor and Rich
with the Social Scientist Werner Schönig


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 12/2007, P. 610-615
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In German cities there are today whole districts and streets of houses where the inhabitants feel excluded from the society. How can the conditions of life of the "lower class" be described and how is it about the political will to improve them? About that we talked with Werner Schönig, professor in the Department of Social Studies of the Catholic University of North Rhine-Westphalia. Alexander Foitzik put the questions.


HK: Mr. Schönig in political soap-box oratories there is increasingly complained that the social inequality in Germany continues to increase; the gap between rich and poor is growing. But at present that observation rarely suffices as real exciter, although post-war Germany was once so proud of a society where - keyword: levelled middle-class society - bottom and top were not so far apart ...

Schönig: That the social inequality increases is first of all a normal process, since a modern society becomes just more differentiated; the type of the manager and of the free personnel adviser as well as that of stepfamilies and single-parent families develops. People become more and more unequal. And a sub-phenomenon of it is the increasing differentiation between top and bottom, a polarization of the poor and the rich part of society. It can also be called a growing splitting of society. We observe this process particularly in urban social areas.

HK: Is that a classical phenomenon as well?

Schönig: The cities were always seen as laboratory of the modern age by sociologists. New developments became first apparent in the cities:



for instance the disintegration of family forms and the migrant issue. So we notice indeed that, because of various effects, poverty areas in cities become more firmly established than in the countryside. Poverty areas in cities, housing estates of the poor, municipal housing units - that existed of course also already in the fifties, sixties or seventies. The Caritas or the Social Service of Catholic Men were always active in the cities. But they were confined to a very limited clientele: e.g. homeless people, Sinti and Roma, fringe groups in the broadest sense. Today, however, there are whole districts and streets of houses where social deprivation predominates. Actually, this is a term from psychology, but today it is increasingly transferred to social inequality. Its characteristics are deprivation, lack, and the feeling to be not wanted. In the case of social deprivation the residents think and feel to be excluded from society, not to belong to it, to get in principle less than one's fair share.

HK: Will thus the splitting of society grow? Will the "lower class" even grow to a third, as e.g. Peter Glotz feared in the late nineties and warned against the emergence of a two-thirds society in Germany?

Schönig: I do not assume that this splitting will increase. When we now have a more relaxed labour market, this will lead e.g. employers and others who want to fill an apprenticeship to a certain pragmatism in the selection of trainees. This is a very great opportunity, especially for young people. Nor do I believe that the new phenomenon of urban poverty areas is in all increasing. But in recent years it has grown and reached a new level. Presumably, that will remain so now. No society, however, has a constantly growing lower class - that does not go well with a modern, developed society.

HK: The debate about the poor and the new poverty in Germany is difficult. Some want to have nothing to do with poverty in Germany, because nobody starves here and in Bangladesh it is always much worse. Others warn against a risk of poverty reaching far into the middle class.

Schönig: The discussion about the new poverty in the eighties set in with the statement that there is a new phenomenon of poverty e.g. with single parents and unemployed. That was new; those were not the classical fringe groups. In this respect it was useful to speak of the new poor. At the same time a new research on poverty began, which was pursued with a high empirical expense. The poverty studies commissioned by the German Caritas, the Federation of Trade Unions and others were written. With them the concept "relative poverty" emerged as central term. The only problem is that in the scientific discussion we find a poverty limit that is fixed relatively high, namely at 60 percent of the average income, which covers a relatively large population - about ten percent.


"We Lose Sight of Forms of Extreme Poverty"

HK: Are you with 60 percent of the average income not poor enough to be regarded as poor?

Schönig: No, the problem is that with it we lose sight of the forms of extreme poverty: both, with regard to material poverty and to the above-mentioned social deprivation. Thus we are in the situation that on the one hand moderate forms of poverty are rightly made a scandal, which however really deals only with the risk of the middle class to get into such poverty. But since that moderate risk of poverty is so much the focus of attention, the hardened, multi-dimensional forms of long-term poverty remain faded out. They are more or less covered by the simple 60 percent limit.

HK: In the so-called "lower class debate" triggered by a study of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung a group of our society came into the focus of attention that somehow has lost the control of its life. That group seems no longer to expect a real improvement of it's and it's children's living conditions. Can the will for social advancement get lost? Or has the free social interchange in our society decreased?

Schönig: The poverty researcher Ernst-Ulrich Huster once spoke about wealth as 'model' ['Leitbild'] compared with wealth as 'cause for suffering' ['Leidbild']. If wealth is my model, it is an incentive for me; then I too want to be rich. But if I regard this chance as unrealistic for me, wealth will become a cause of suffering for me. I suffer from the wealth of others, because it remains unreachable for me. This is a very good description of the awareness of life that I described above as social deprivation. Actually, everyone wants to accomplish his social advancement. But in the meantime the hurdles for a real social advancement are indeed frightening.



The differentiation goes very far. So either is true; there is wealth as an incentive, but one can also despair at the non-achieved. We notice both already with children and adolescents. Even the seven to eleven year-old are very precisely aware of, in what social class they are, and that they very probably will not take their school-leaving examination, never be able to study. But that they can only know by their parents.


"The Whole Area of Poverty is only Administered"

HK: What do those who are without prospect or chance and the new poor in the urban areas really need as support and what does just not help them?

Schönig: What really helps is an intensive support. But on the part of the municipalities very much is only half-heartedly financed. Admittedly, there are family centres, but the appropriate staff that was needed to promote the children in their respective potentials is missing. To help here is not possible without money! But the whole area of poverty is only administered, and one does not do nearly as much as ought to be done. Those who run the institutions, politics - all do not want to hear it any more, and certainly not from university lecturers, but it is about money. Within the system we can no longer optimize, as it is always demanded on the part of politics. There many things come up against limiting factors. Look only how much in the social area is done with the help of volunteers and one-year-trainee-students. But one cannot bear that extreme psychological burden of working in such poverty households for a long time.

HK: What about the integration chances in the job market? Are here not a lot of integration offers for which our society is also ready to spend a fair bit of money?

Schönig: Yes, but even integration into the labour market means always integration into very simple activities of the labour market. People know that. If they are integrated into the labour market, then it is on the lowest level. That hardly motivates. People who anyway have no relation to the working life are required to enter on the lowest level, a level where no one really wants to work voluntarily. There are mental barriers; one can gain too little. Or think of the discussion about poverty in old age: in the low-wage sector, which more and more develops, one will not be able to escape one's own poverty in old age even by a forty-year employment. Where is here an incentive effect?

HK: In the current family-political debate, which (to a large extent is dominated by the problems of the middle-class family - keyword: minder money - one also hotly debated of how much autonomy and self-determination one thinks the lower class families capable, how much one can expect of them, and how much the state has to engage just for the children's welfare ...

Schönig: It is a fact that families are often overtaxed by an appropriate upbringing of their children. This being overtaxed, which is immediately recognizable from outside and of which the persons affected are also aware, is really a feature of their lives. Ultimately, this being overtaxed is caused by the fact that the life chances on which the child depends cannot be granted. That is obvious by the kind of incentives set at home: There is little read aloud, instead much TV. The children are not only not fostered but grow up with the feeling and the awareness that they - as it is apparent with the parents - will lead a marginal existence in society. And this feeling is in addition imparted spatially, because all problematic families, as it were, live on top of one another. That means, of course, vice versa, that the children are a good starting-point. All parents of this world want of course that their children do well, some that they are better off. If one talks about that point with the parents, one can also win them for a promotion of their children. All social workers will tell you that. Here lies the crucial access to the child's welfare. You just need to make plausible that your effort is genuine, lasting, promising success - then the parents will also join in.


"All parents of this World want that their children are doing well or better"

HK: One of the major goals of German educational policy was and is to eliminate social inequalities. Numerous studies have now proved that this goal is scarcely achieved, that educational careers in Germany are - as in hardly any other country - determined by the social origin. Must we part with the noble goal of social advancement by education?

Schönig: The school career of children depends on two factors: The primary educational effect, which tells how well the children, quite neutrally regarded, are in (the) school. There children from the middle class do of course better; they are also more intelligent - in the conventional sense. But even if they are not, parents from the middle class will send them to a secondary school - that is the secondary effect of origin. This secondary effect of origin works the stronger the more transitions are in an educational system and the sooner these transitions take place. In Germany we have a system with very many transitions and in which these transitions are pending early. This combination is highly selective, because one has to decide under high uncertainty.



This uncertainty again leads to the fact that the parents tend to be orientated towards their own educational experiences and to transfer their educational status to their children. Conversely, the system behaves less selective when there are fewer thresholds and these are pending later - hence an integrated school system.


"Full-day Offers Could Very Well Have a Levelling Effect"

HK: How do classical educational careers go in the lower class?

Schönig: This becomes particularly clear by the concept of the second chance. When middle-class parents, who are oriented towards education, have children who e.g. fail in the grammar school, there is always a second chance: they will get coaching or simply have to repeat a year. The parents then have the deep confidence that their child will make it. With the same talent children from the lower class will admittedly be able to win access to the grammar school. But if they fail there once, the parents will immediately say, 'You see, there is no point in doing that.' Hence the threat of breaking off is much higher.

HK: What educational-political measures could immediately put things right? What can politically be expected at all?

Schönig: At the moment everything seems possible, including that against the background of increasing international exchange of experience the tripartite school system in Germany will be softened. The extension of all-day care, which we currently notice, has at least the potential to even out differences - provided it is not related to the middle class only. Up to now the children from problematic, socially weak conditions are often underrepresented in the all-day area, especially if one does not purposefully take countermeasures. The all-day services could very well even out differences, but first of all we have to win the children from socially weak families over for the offers. With the typical child in all-day care both parents are employed, but that is just not the situation of the lower class.

HK: How could their parents be won over for the use of all-day institutions?

Schönig: There, for instance, the sharing of costs is of great importance. Some families are with their own resources just at the limit, so that there is no reimbursement of the parents' contribution; and then they must - subjectively experienced - pay high contributions. For others the offer on the whole is not plausible: Why should the Turkish family with a non-working mother even pay for letting her child be looked after externally? But perhaps she would send her child, if the offer was free. But as the full-day services on the whole are at the moment, we often do not reach the problematic families.

HK: How is it at present in general about the political will to overcome social inequality? How capable of securing a majority are e.g. far-reaching supports for the lower class, the new poor?

Schönig: Take the example of a local politician. It is extremely difficult for him to help especially those areas of poverty; quite simply because within the poverty areas many are not entitled to vote, mostly because of their status as foreigners. Moreover, also the German poverty population hardly takes part in elections. Hence those who the local politician especially wants to support bring in no votes politically. There are impressive precedents, where in some districts was heavily invested and that's what local politicians got for it: on the one hand from the middle class, the loyal voters who felt neglected - the money must of course be withdrawn somewhere. There, however, where one helps one is nevertheless not elected. The local politicians must of course ask whether his political commitment is worth it or not. That is to a certain extent a communal-political tragedy of our system, which is visible in a slighter form also at the state and federal level.


"The Positive Trend in the Labour Market Scarcely Reaches the Bottom"

HK: Does the need for separation between the classes rather decrease in more recent times? What is the relationship between top and bottom?

Schönig: The demarcation takes place from top to bottom, but that has always been the case. One fearfully looks down, and especially the lower middle class has a special code at its disposal to differentiate itself from the lower class. This apprehensive look at present characterizes also the poverty research, not coincidentally at the moment everything revolves around the percentage points of the poverty risk.

HK: And how does one look from the bottom to the top - enviously or aggressively?

Schönig: In the lower class always the urgent desire exists to be like the middle class.



That's why e.g. the parents make a lot of presents to their children. Material shortages are ostensibly covered up to the outside. When there is "toy day" at the kindergarten, the children are allowed to bring along from home a toy (to the), particularly big toys are brought along by children of whom one knows exactly that the parents are not able to afford it, and which by the way are not really appropriate to the situation. The feeling of wanting to be there, to participate, to be recognized, or at least not to stand out comes more from the lower class, and that has always been so. Today, we see it quite clearly by demonstrative consumption and deliberate lifestyle.


"The Advocacy Function of Welfare Associations is Indispensable"

HK: Does the anxiously looking down strengthen the "compassion" of the middle class with the lower and lowest life situations? Are the upper classes (yet) ready to foster the lower class, its children? Is this support capable of securing a political majority?

Schönig: At present this willingness at best stagnates. But that will change, if we really for a longer period have a more relaxed labour market. The problem is that the positive trend in the labour market is far less reflected in the lower class than among the high-skilled. The effects hardly arrive below; with the long-term unemployed, young illiterates of course nothing happens. Nevertheless the justification pressure opposite the unemployed will increase. Within the middle class it will then all the more be said, who now still has no job is himself to blame. Mass unemployment means that all can be unemployed, academics, men and women, foreigners and Germans - widely spread. But when the labour market relaxes, only those are unemployed who really have a problem. Then the status of unemployment becomes increasingly stigmatizing.

HK: How dangerous is such a development politically - that a certain social group feels shaken off, is socially shaken off, and will also remain shaken off?

Schönig: That is an ethical, a social-ethical problem, but no political danger. For the group is so heterogeneous in itself that it cannot simply organize. Take the French youths in the suburbs. They have a lot in common, particularly their status of migrants. The German underclass has not got this common status. Here we have a rather American situation: Some migrants are extremely well integrated, efficient, and plan a corresponding rise. They are enormously oriented towards education. But the group of those who are socially shaken off is so diverse in its ethnicities and individual life stories that I do not see how they should organize together. On the contrary, that rather leads to internal conflicts: people of Russian origin fight people of Turkish origin, but typically not Germans. Nor would they demonstrate against the German middle class.

HK: So if no political pressure arises, how and by whom can then the ethical problem be tackled? Is it still plausibly to convey that the life situations of the lower class must be improved?

Schönig: By a massive promotion of social focuses certainly no elections can be won. Politics as such is, as it were, overtaxed by this task; seen politically it does not pay. From the lower class no stimuli can be expected, nor from the middle class. That's why the advocacy function, as it is practised by the charitable institutions, is all the more important.


"To be Present in the Districts on a Long-term Basis and with a Good Staff"

HK: Do you here place special expectations in the churches and their welfare associations?

Schönig: It's a pity that in the public so little is known about the high resources of their own with which the churches are active in the social focuses. That is too little communicated to the outside. The view prevails that the state distributes its money to welfare associations, but the high share of their own resources is not seen. The churches ought to present in public much more clearly what they do out of their own commitment in that area - just when they at the same time demand from the state a higher commitment.

HK: What does particularly distinguish the work of the church welfare associations?

Schönig: That the long-term perspective is always maintained. The worst one can do in the lower class or poverty area is to start a project once here and once there: e.g. for two years homework help for young Turks or the like. These temporary projects with which then at the end also a detailed evaluation process takes place are counterproductive. On the part of politics one often talks about initial effects - that is nonsense. You cannot initiate homework help and go away after a year.



But the church institutions work on a long-term basis. That's why they do a very good job. It is based on continuity and confidence. Parents must get the impression that the one who recommends them to give the child to an open day care really wants the best for the child. But this happens only by personal encounter and felt empathy. That's why one must be present on a long-term basis and have a good staff in those districts. That is done better by church welfare associations than by others.


    {*} The habilitated economist and political scientist Werner Schönig (born in 1966) is Professor in the Department of Social Studies of the Catholic University of North Rhine-Westphalia, Cologne, since 2004. His activity centres on social services, poverty, social area, and social-economical issues. From 2001 until 2004 he was a member of the Survey Commission on "The Future of the Cities in North Rhine-Westphalia" of the North Rhine-Westphalia state parliament, from 2004 to 2005 a member of the Survey Commission "Communes" of the state parliament of Rhineland-Palatinate.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'