Even in economically powerful Germany, poverty threatens the social fabric. And neither the left or right has any real solutions — except to play to fears.
MUNICH — These are scenes that are not worthy of Germany, scenes that should not take place in a prosperous society. For example, this summer I sat down with my friends at a café on one of the lakes in Berlin and we ordered over-the-top ice cream dishes. When a family of four sat down next to us, the mother of the children looked nervously at the father. The father leaned forward and whispered to his wife: "It's ok, it's ok!" She shook her head. "I'll make it back, I promise!" The kids got their ice cream sundaes. It was a treat for them, but painful for their parents.
This is just one of many everyday scenes in Germany, the powerhouse of Europe that reports one economic success after another. Of course, no child actually needs an ice cream sundae to survive or a day of leisure at the lake. Is this poverty? Or are poor children those who cannot go to the lake at all, because their mother struggles as a single parent? Maybe these mothers would like to avoid such scenes in public. In developed industrial societies, poverty is predominantly female. After women, the second poorest category is the youth, the future of the country. Four and a half million children in Germany live in poverty; children who will not get the best out of this country and will not be able to give back their best. No, social mobility is not a "made in Germany" success story.
In the 1960s, the fight against poverty was happening worldwide. In the United States, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a "war on poverty." Poverty reduction in Western countries has been so successful that people now speak of "relative poverty." Now they are faced with a new challenge: How radically can we talk about relative poverty? How do we declare war on such a form of poverty? How can we explain what a lack of participation means for people?
The agenda-setting come from the right.
Poverty has been investigated from every angle. More and more see it as a direct threat to democracy. And yet, the topic of poverty rarely engages people's emotions: It doesn't create much debate, doesn't set off protests. The methods to analyze poverty are constantly updated, which helps measure poverty and the needs of those living in relative poverty.
The danger of the invisibility of poverty for social cohesion was revealed by the Brexit vote: Between 2013 and 2015, the number of poor in the United Kingdom rose by 0.5%. Behind this percentage lies the fate of 400,000 Brits whose situation neighbors and friends would have noticed, but that the media and political parties missed. On top of that, the majority of the poor in the UK are among the so-called "working poor," people who remain poor despite having jobs. British economists now see a possible link between the increase in the poor population and the result of the referendum. How could the uncertainty of half a million people change the outcome of a vote?
European Socialists can't seem to find strategies to address these demographics. The right-wingers can't either, but they know how to turn the uncertainty and fear of people into political capital. Many leftists now seek to learn from the right, rather than pay attention to history and conduct an analysis of the present.
Between 2013 and 2015, the number of poor in the UK rose by 0.5% — Photo: Dave Reed
However, the decline of the European Social Democrats shows that voters do not like this new DNA of Social Democracy. Solidarity cannot only be thought about on the national level in a globalized world. The people who want solidarity do not deprive other needy people of solidarity, but fight against the causes of inequality. Democratic parties damage their credibility by ignoring those issues. Who demands a concrete contribution from the financial elite to solve major global challenges, such as migration? To expect a contribution from those who capitalize on the resources of the African continent should be a social democratic demand.
Radical solutions such as an universal basic income still seem too ambitious.
Instead, the agenda-setting come from the right. However, the openness of many to the question of belonging can also be interpreted as a concern for the uncertain: "Does the state provide for me as a citizen?" When confidence in state welfare is shaken, the enthusiasm for solidarity diminishes — and citizens see themselves as lone fighters.
Meanwhile, high rents are pushing people from the middle class out of inner cities. Of course, the poverty debate does not revolve around whether or not people can afford to live in an apartment in the heart of the city. But the poverty debate in a prosperous society must involve more of those who are afraid of poverty because of the exclusion it creates. Radical solutions such as an universal basic income still seem too ambitious, while fears spread about the robotization of work. The superfluous worker is not a reliable democrat; he is a timid man. He currently has no party. This is not a "German fear." It is a profound change for the entire Western society. And those who want to lead our politics need to talk about it and shape real change without creating new fears.