Society could function if everyone were poor

"Top - Middle - Bottom"Social scientists measure society

"As a rule, a procedure has been chosen in society since the 1970s: The 'top - middle - bottom' in society is sorted according to class. And class means that three criteria are used for people: occupation, that Income and level of education. That's standard. "

Who is part of the elite in Germany? How is the middle of society doing? Who is affected by poverty and exclusion? And how fairly are opportunities and incomes distributed in our society? "Above - Middle - Below" is the name of a tape from the Federal Agency for Political Education in which social scientists "measure" the social structure of our society. At the same time, they give an insight into the norms, ways of thinking and living conditions of the social classes. But - where are the boundaries between "those up there", the middle class and the lower class? The Mainz sociologist Prof. Stefan Hradil wrote the introduction to the book:

"There have been many attempts and many criticisms, for example a standard was often chosen that 70 percent of median income is the lower limit of the middle class and 150 percent the upper limit."

In euros this means that if a single person earns between 1160 and 2460 euros and a family with two children between 2400 and 5160 euros net, then they belong to the middle class. At least if, as many scientists add, they have a secondary school diploma and vocational training.

"But that is largely arbitrary and controversial. And that actually reflects the fact that in our society there are no longer any precisely identifiable boundaries between the layers."

Does a student with 800 euros per month belong to the lower class? A family with a net income of 5500 euros per month in the upper class? Like the board of directors of a DAX company, which received an average of 5.3 million in 2014? And 135 families in Germany even have assets of at least one billion euros. So there is a pronounced gradient especially 'at the top'.

The upper class prevents sociologists from analyzing their living environment

"Those who are really at the top are two groups. First, the so-called elite members. In this case, elite does not mean the best or the most beautiful, but elite means those who are in positions from which one can exert social influence. And the second group are the really rich. "

And who is "really rich"?

"It is a reasonable definition not to cling to numbers, but to say who has so much on the high edge that they no longer have to work, so that they can shape their life as they like in terms of acquisition, he can be considered rich. And you have to have a lot on the high edge in order to know that you will never have to work again in your life. "

While the lifestyles of the middle and lower classes have been researched quite well, the "upper class" deny sociologists access to their worlds. At best, glamor magazines think they can capture their lifestyle on their glossy photos of motor yachts, jet set parties or charity balls. By the way, "charity" really seems to be a concern of the wealthy. Their wealth appears to be legitimized by the fact that they "give something back" to society instead of living in "demonstrative idleness". This is what the Potsdam education researcher Wolfgang Lauterbach describes when he certifies that the rich have an above-average "philanthropic commitment". Some of the assets are made available for charitable purposes, foundations or aid projects. Supported by the desire to solve society's problems actively and creatively. Not infrequently, this goes hand in hand with the conviction that state intervention is inefficient in many areas. And from this it follows, according to Darmstadt sociologist Prof. Michael Hartmann:

"Taxes are something in these circles, because the state takes something away from you that you have worked hard for and the state can't handle money anyway."

For Michael Hartmann, the German elites live in a "parallel world" that functions according to different standards than those of normal German citizens. In a study he examined the living environment of the top 1000 in our society. They are far less critical of the social differences in Germany than those who come from less affluent classes. And most of them spent their childhood and youth under privileged conditions. For Hartmann this means: Success in Germany is often hereditary.

"So if you look at the German core elite ... those who hold the 1000 most important positions of power, you see that two out of three come from the upper 3.5 percent of the population, they come from families that were wealthy or also rich .... And what you can tell that childhood and youth, how you grew up, have become very formative for the perception of the world. "

Rise through achievement as a great promise of the post-war era

And this perception of the world is shaped by the belief in one's own achievement as the basis of the available family wealth, even where it is billions. It is true that the descendants of rich families do not deny that their parental home was one of the decisive factors for their own chances in life. But ultimately, hard work is the decisive reason for their own prosperity, as well as that of their fathers and grandfathers. Michael Hartmann in a lecture:

"If you then ask further, are the social differences as they exist in Germany fair? Those who grew up in wealth say with a majority that they are fair ... because they attribute it to performance. The above have just got more done and those downstairs ... they sit in front of the TV, put in chips and watch stupid programs. We, on the other hand, when we watch TV, we watch Arte and drink expensive wine. "

As a matter of fact, advancement through achievement was the great promise of the post-war period. However, the origin should not play a role. Post-war society was advancement-oriented and permeable, which is why the sociologist Helmut Schelsky described it as a "leveled medium-sized society" in the early 1950s. Indeed, at that time the lower and middle income earners were able to increase their share of the pie, while the share of top incomes fell. The class struggle was yesterday, the center ensured political and economic stability. By the way, there were similar thoughts in antiquity, writes the political scientist Herfried Münkler. Against Plato's idea of ​​the rule of the best - namely the philosophers - Aristotle saw in the middle the guarantee for a stable society. Because she can balance the extremes. Today it is the lifestyle of the middle class that is considered a model for society:

"Because it refers to the fact that you are hardworking, that you are active, that you invest in your own education, that nothing falls into your lap, that you have worked hard for it."

Prof. Steffen Mau, sociologist at the Humboldt University Berlin on the values ​​of the middle class:

"This is something that has diffused into society as a whole, it also affects the upper classes. Even if you no longer have to, you get up early and go to work. And the same applies to the lower classes. So if you don't behave as the normative model of the middle class lifestyle prescribes, then you are confronted with reservations, which should then signal to you that you have to behave like the middle class in order to be part of it in the long term. "

Income inequalities have been increasing again since the 1980s. The wealthy have become richer and more affluent, while income growth in the middle has been moderate to small. On the other hand, says Steffen Mau, the number of people with middle and higher education doubled between 1984 and 2010. Steffen Mau therefore does not see a "middle class crisis", as it has been almost alarmistically proclaimed in recent years.

"Now we have had a longer phase, which was characterized by stagnating income development in the middle class. On the other hand, also by significant change processes in the labor market. Structural change, high unemployment 10 years ago, the Hartz IV laws, those were all things where the middle class felt threatened. But we have not seen any massive falls in the middle class. With regard to the economic definition of the middle class, we have seen this middle income group shrink by 5 or 6 percent, but also for 7 or 8 years relative stability. "

More than 60 percent of Germans belong to the middle class

The middle class still includes just over 60 percent of the population. It is more stable than expected and does not feel as insecure for a long time as some crisis diagnoses suggest. What is new, according to Stefan Hardil:

"That even in the middle class, unlike in the 60s and 70s, perfect security is no longer guaranteed. There it can happen to you even today that you fall down with an education that is no longer marketable. But it can be yours it also happens that they move up to the upper class with another education, in IT or elsewhere. So the wind has gotten rougher. The opportunities have increased, but the risks have also increased in the middle class. And that was not typical for the post-war middle class. "

But the wind has also gotten rougher for those "at the bottom". These are those who earn less than 70 percent of the median income. For example, a single who earns less than 900 euros net, a family of four who, depending on the bill, have between 1,870 and 2,450 euros to live on. Not a lot of money, no doubt! But whether this is the right way to measure poverty is a matter of dispute. Doesn't that mean that if all Germans suddenly earned twice as much tomorrow, poverty in Germany would still be just as great. What is not disputed, however, is that fewer and fewer people are able to rise from this relative poverty.

"Above all, we have an increasing entrenchment of poverty."

So Olaf Groh-Samberg, professor of sociology at the University of Bremen. And this despite the fact that unemployment in Germany is at an almost historic low:

"Unemployment has fallen very sharply since 2005, but poverty has not. At best, it has stagnated and movements out of poverty have not increased significantly. And that has to do with the fact that the structure of employment has increasingly deteriorated. We are increasingly precarious Jobs, we have low-wage jobs. And that these precarious jobs also offer few opportunities for advancement to better-paid jobs. "

In his essay "The End of the Ascension Society?" Olaf Groh-Samberg describes a decreasing "mobility of upward mobility" out of poverty. A surprising finding, given the economic prosperity in Germany, there is talk of a shortage of skilled workers everywhere - and not only in the academic professions. So does the German lower class lack the "will to rise", as the SPD chairman at the time, Kurt Beck, put it 9 years ago? Is the real problem of the lower classes not poverty, but a "lower class culture" consisting of fast food, lower class TV and a lack of interest in education, as the historian Paul Nolte described it?

"It is certainly not due to a lack of willingness to advance. It is clearly due to the lack of opportunities for advancement, and you can see that in the fact that the educational opportunities are very poor. So children from poor families are more likely to go to secondary schools and generally have poorer educational opportunities, with a poor school leaving certificate you no longer have an apprenticeship, you are also at a disadvantage when looking for an apprenticeship and even if you have low qualifications it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a good job. "

Sociologist: The new lower class lacks any form of collective identity

In contrast to the class-conscious proletariat of earlier times, the new lower classes lack any form of collective identity, according to the Jena sociologist Klaus Dörre about the precariat of today. For him, this is mainly due to the "return and spread of degrading work", as it was caused by the deregulation of the labor markets. Anyone who only ever commutes between precarious work, top-up benefits and unemployment loses connection with the performance and advancement-oriented middle class norms. He remains a prisoner of his situation in life.

"If special milieus arise with the lower class, then maybe this dream of advancement or the belief that if you are hardworking enough and you only get up early enough you can gain a foothold in the middle class will crumble. And that is what you need as well Motivational background for certain orientations and activities. And that is something that is learned at home and where the parents are also very strong role models. "

Bringing education closer to the less educated classes therefore often seems to be the key to getting out of a precarious situation. However, Olaf Groh-Samberg points out, the middle and upper classes are working hard to maintain the educational gap between them and the lower classes.

"If the middle and upper classes do so much to ensure that their children are as fit as possible, then the educational competition intensifies and this is of course at the expense of the children who come from families where there are not so high educational resources, where this support is also provided cannot be achieved to the extent that it happens in the middle and upper classes. "

Without a doubt, all Western European countries are still dominated by the middle class today.

But unlike in the post-war period, when social inequalities abated, extremes on the fringes of society have increased again.

"We have a large increase in income inequalities, we have a large increase in wealth inequalities, and we also have a large increase in precarious jobs, in low-wage jobs, we have the highest low-wage sector in Europe. And that means the structure of inequality, which has widened and open. Likewise at the top, where we see that more and more wealth is being accumulated in the uppermost floors of society. "

Liberals consider inequalities acceptable

However, even democracies do not necessarily claim to be free from inequalities. As long as everyone is getting better and better and everyone has the chance to advance socially, inequalities are considered acceptable. And from when inequality is perceived as unjust, says Stefan Hradil, is not least a question of political color.

"A liberal will say that fairness of opportunity and fairness of performance are most important to me. Then you can cope very well with conditions with relatively large wage gaps, as long as you can interpret them as a consequence of different performance. A socialist to whom equality means a lot, he can't cope with it at all and says, I don't want managers to earn as much more than the cleaner who cleans their office. That's why you can't say that injustice begins at a certain level of inequality. These are different views, that are closely linked to political milieus. "

According to an Allensbach survey from 2014, however, 59 percent of Germans think that Germany is not doing justice. And only 21 percent consider assets and earnings to be distributed fairly. The introduction of the minimum wage and the 63 pension for long-term employees were therefore welcomed by over 70 percent of Germans. However, the citizens did not approve of political plans to create more justice through redistribution through tax increases.

"The irritating thing about the current situation is that most people don't like this divergence of income and wealth, somehow most don't think what's been going on in the last 30 years is fair. But it has been especially since unemployment has fallen , more likely with a shrug. Nor has it paid for certain parties to pursue the issue of justice. Obviously, it is not the most important thing to people. In their goals, for example, universal employment opportunities are far more important to most people. "

As long as the cake to be distributed continues to grow, the outrage over the uneven distribution of the pieces of cake is obviously limited. Because with growth, there is the hope that things will at least improve a little for everyone. Which, according to the latest data from the German Institute for Economic Research, was also the case in 2011 and 2012. The income gap between rich and poor widened nonetheless. And, according to Stefan Hradil, if the cake were to shrink again, the discussion of how to distribute the pieces could quickly become hotter.