'Underclass' debate raises worries over poverty

27th October 2006, Comments 0 comments

A recent sociological study has sparked a debate about Germany's impoverished 'underclass', said to comprise eight per cent of the population. David Gordon Smith looks at poverty in Germany.

Germany is currently in the throes of a debate about its purported "Unterschicht" ("underclass"), which politicians and the chattering classes appear to have recently discovered.

It is a touchy subject for a country which otherwise likes to consider itself fairly classless and which has on occasion enjoyed a certain superior Schadenfreude regarding perceived inequalities in American society, thinking such poverty couldn't happen here.

Discovering the precariat

The debate was sparked by a sociological study from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a foundation close to the left-leaning Social Democratic party (SPD) who currently form a coalition government with the right-of-centre Christian Democrats.

The study identified nine social groups within Germany, based on factors such as ambition and attitudes to life. It categorised the most demoralised as the now-infamous "alienated precariat" (the coinage "precariat" being a mixture of "precarious" and "proletariat"). The members of this unenviable group are described as living in poverty with little chance of improving their situation.


SPD leader Kurt Beck got the controversy in motion by introducing the value-laden word "underclass" into the arena. In a newspaper article, he said that Germany has an "underclass problem" because "far too many people" have "come to terms" with their poverty. Beck said these people lacked ambition to improve their circumstances.

The debate has sparked a series of impassioned newspaper editorials and articles about social exclusion and the welfare state, calling for more education or blaming the problem on a new "upper class". There seems little consensus about what should be done to solve the problem. Meanwhile SPD politician Franz Müntefering has denied that Germany has a class system and said that the term "underclass" stigmatises "those who are weaker."

Worst in the east

The "alienated precariat" is said to comprise 6.5 million people -- an alarming eight percent of the German population. The problem is, unsurprisingly, worst in eastern Germany, which has the country's highest unemployment rates and where millions of people found themselves on the scrapheap after the Wall came down.

20 percent of the population of the "new federal states" (as the states of the former German Democratic Republic are euphemistically referred to) are said to belong to this group. Poverty and unemployment are considered factors behind the rise of neo-Nazis in the eastern states; far-right parties have gained seats in state parliaments in the last couple of years.

However this newly-identified precariat is arguably not a class as such, as it is very heterogeneous, including freelancers and students as well as those with "Minijobs" (part time jobs paying a maximum of EUR 400 per month), and the long-term unemployed.

Struggling to cope

The debate comes at a time when Germany is desperately trying to find its way in the new globalised world economy. The country is struggling to keep the manufacturing jobs which for years were a mainstay of the German economy but which are now being outsourced to Eastern Europe and other low-wage countries. Each new round of layoffs, such as recent job losses at the mobile phone handset maker BenQ, is greeted with mass protests. Meanwhile Germany's still-powerful unions regularly call strikes for better pay and conditions.

The ideal of work in Germany is still a permanent contract with full benefits, and being self-employed or freelance is generally seen as unattractive. However many companies, wary of the commitment and costs that a contract employee entail, are choosing to use freelance employees to maintain flexibility and avoid paying benefits -- some of whom, however, are "freelance" in name only. This new lack of job security has resulted in an increasing anxiety among German workers.

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