Opinion piece
Christoph Butterwegge on poverty

Poverty | Photo (detail): © perfectlab/Fotolia

Authors and representatives of public life write personal opinion pieces for goethe.de/kultur about a particular concept that influences their life. Poverty researcher Christoph Butterwegge believes that poverty comes about not despite but because of wealth.

Hartz IV is the best-known symbol anywhere in Europe of the restructuring and dismantling of the welfare state, and in my opinion is the most striking example of government-sponsored poverty. This law, which came into effect in 2005, was the most radical turning point in the development of Germany’s welfare state post-1945: for the first time, it abolished a payment that had replaced wages in a way that was of existential importance for millions of people, and replaced it with a simple welfare payment known as Unemployment Benefit II. For single persons almost all over Germany, this latter payment lies below the EU’s official (at-risk-of) poverty threshold of 60 percent of median income.

Named after the then Volkswagen manager Peter Hartz, the reform noticeably increased the poverty risk for the unemployed and their families, as well as for those in precarious employment, and had an intimidating effect on other sections of the population: with the Hartz IV sword of Damocles hanging over them, employees, works councils and unions saw themselves forced to accept precarious employment conditions and declining real wages. The low-wage sector, which accounts for almost a quarter of all employed persons, is today the main gateway into poverty in employment and later in old age.

“Warm milk to combat hunger”

I was both extremely moved and deeply shocked when I heard an old lady on a tiny pension talking about her everyday life. In a live broadcast during which I was sitting in the studio at the radio station, this widow of a printing press owner from Munich explained how she would sit in the dark in the evenings – to save electricity -  drinking a glass of warm milk because her grandmother had told her when she was a child that drinking warm milk stops one feeling hungry. Munich is the city where for example BMW is headquartered. The company’s heirs, Susanne Klatten and Stefan Quandt, were paid no less than 1.074 billion euros in dividends from their shareholdings for 2016.

“Poverty comes about not despite but because of wealth”

Christoph Butterwegge Christoph Butterwegge | Foto (Ausschnitt): © Wolfgang Schmidt Poverty cannot be viewed on its own, but only in the context of its conceptual counterpart, namely wealth. It is therefore reasonable to say that a person who is not willing to talk about wealth should also say nothing about poverty! Or, to put it a different way, if there were no huge income and wealth disparities between people, nobody could be described as poor – at least not in a rich country such as Germany. Consequently, poverty comes about not despite but because of wealth.

In a poem he wrote in 1934, Bertolt Brecht expressed this as follows: “Rich man, poor man / faced each other in a van. / Said the poor man with a twitch: / Were I not poor, you wouldn’t be rich.” This observation remains no less true nowadays: if during a financial crisis more people overdraw their current accounts and have to pay high rates of overdraft interest, those who own the banks will become even richer. And if during an economic crisis more people (have to) shop at discount supermarkets, the families that own chains like Aldi and Lidl – and in any case are some of the richest in the country – will become even richer.


Poverty takes extremely different forms worldwide, but it does have a common core. A distinction is made between absolute, extreme or existential poverty on the one hand and relatively poverty on the other. People are considered to be suffering from absolute poverty if they are unable to satisfy their basic needs, that is to say if they lack food, safe drinking water, adequate clothing for the local climatic conditions, a roof over their head or basic medical care. People are said to be relatively poor if their lack of financial resources makes them unable or able only to an insufficient extent to participate in the life of society and if their standard of living is far below the norm. A German who is on Hartz IV benefits and lives in a tower block will certainly have a very different experience of poverty than a person living in a hut in the Third or Fourth World. However, what they both have in common is the fundamentally depressing experience of being demeaned, humiliated and disenfranchised.



was a professor of political science at the University of Cologne until 2016. His main area of focus is social policy and the causes and consequences of poverty. In 2017 he was nominated by the left-wing party Die Linke as a candidate for the office of Federal President.


Conceptualizing Photo (detail): © Svyatoslav Lypynskyy/Fotolia Thomas Brussig on freedom
Poverty researcher Christoph Butterwegge believes that poverty comes about not despite but because of wealth.

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