Forgotten, neglected, stigmatized: Child Poverty in Germany Symptoms, background and community based intervention strategies

Tilo Fiegler
City District Manager, Erfurt, Germany
Associate Lecturer, Department of Social Work
University of Applied Sciences, Erfurt, Germany

Monika Frank
Coordinator, Internship Office
Department of Social Work
University of Applied Sciences, Erfurt, Germany


Child poverty in a wealthy country? This was not a public topic in Germany until two years ago, even though tragic cases of neglected children ran through the media almost weekly. A problem is emerging which can no longer be ignored by society and which raises urgent questions for parents, communities and the government.
We want to investigate reasons for child poverty in Germany, show its’ consequences, and discuss community-based professional approaches to those consequences in Erfurt, Thuringia.

Child poverty in Germany may have country-specific features, yet UNICEF statistics show that a rising child poverty rate- with very few exceptions- is a European trend that demands a more international perspective in facing the problems. On the basis of obtaining new perspectives from different national and professional experiences and concepts, we want to invite readers to discuss with us ideas and scenarios for facing and obviating child poverty.

General overview: Child poverty

Child poverty is a very complex problem, which is not limited to material poverty but can also mean educational poverty, poor social integration or emotional poverty (which is not a “privilege” of the poor).

A national child poverty rate is determined by a combination of three forces:

General social trends:

The political changes in eastern Europe during the nineties had partially dramatic economic and social impacts on families. The breakdown of communism, the sometimes fast and radical transformations into a capitalist economy and migrations on a large scale demanded extreme adaptation and re-orientation abilities of people. This was not successful for all and also affected children in their social, material and emotional well-being.
Another tendency in modern Western societies is that more and more children grow up in single parent families and are at a greater risk of facing poverty and neglect if the parent is unemployed.

Labour market conditions:

Unemployment can change the material and social situation of a family dramatically. Additionally, long term unemployment may bring the risk of emotional neglect, social isolation, inner resignation and the weakening of resilience in children.

Government policies:

The UNICEF Child Poverty Report 2005 clearly shows that the social and family policy of a country has a direct influence on the child poverty rate:

No OECD country devoting 10 per cent or more of GDP to social transfers has a child poverty rate of higher than 10 percent. No country devoting less than 5 percent of GDP to such transfers has a child poverty rate of less than 15 percent. (UNICEF, 2005, p. 4)

When we discuss child poverty in rich countries, we don’t talk about absolute poverty where people have to survive with less than $ 1 per day, but about relative poverty. Relative poverty according to the UNICEF Child Poverty Report 2005 means less than 60% of the national median income.1 This may on one hand mean significant income differences within Europe, but on the other hand it does not mean that a child – let’s say in Portugal – that has no personal mobile phone is poorer than a German child with such a phone.

1 Some other statistics also refer to relative poverty as less than 50% of the median income. Chassé defines the following categories of relative poverty according to so called scientific standards: less than 40% (strong poverty), less than 50% (poverty), less than 60% (mild poverty). (Chassé, 2005, p. 44).

Child poverty rates: The German situation in numbers

Child poverty is a steadily growing problem in modern Western societies. Between 1990 and 2000 the child poverty rate rose in 17 out of 24 OECD countries (UNICEF, 2005, p. 4). Children in Scandinavia face the lowest risk of living in relative poverty (less than 5%), while 22% of U.S. American children are poor. Germany, which is proud to have the world’s third largest economy, now has to face the fact that more than 10% of the young population live in poverty (UNICEF 2005, p.6). While efforts to fight child poverty in Great Britain and the United States showed at least some success (- 3.1 and – 2.4% respectively), the situation in Germany worsened by 2.7 % in the same period of time (the nineties; UNICEF, 2005, p.7), and even by 6% by 2007 (Nöthling, 2007, p.3). Why this worsening in the new millennium? Two main reasons seem to be responsible for this development.

First, in 2004 a new unemployment benefit act (Hartz IV) was passed by the German government with the aim of activating unemployed people in the labour market instead of passively waiting for the next monthly benefit. To “motivate” them, the act reduces the financial support for long-term unemployed people from a relatively comfortable level of 60% of the last income after one year to a general benefit on a very low level for all unemployed, independent of former income. While at the beginning family “reserves” may compensate the reduced budget, many families slide relatively quickly into a financial disaster, which of course directly affects the children. We will investigate this later.

Second, Germany has a relatively high unemployment rate (9.8% in March 2007). A closer look at the rates in East and West Germany not only shows that the economical re-unification has not yet ended (East 16.5 %, West 8.1 %; Federal Labor Agency, 2007), but it also reveals the direct connection of unemployment rates and the poverty rates among children ages 0-15 years: Germany 16.2 % and East Germany 30.1 %. While in Thuringia, one of the East German Bundesländer, the child poverty rate from 2005 to 2006 grew by 7.8 %, while the rate of Erfurt, the provincial capital of Thuringia, rose by 15% within this one year (Nöthling, 2007, p.3).

Sadly, the new Federal Unemployment Benefit Act was not flanked by necessary social- political programs that would avoid and compensate for the consequences to children who live in low-income families. Instead, it became very obvious that the government focused on pressing down unemployment rates (which slowly seems to be working) without considering side effects, although critical voices warned about this. So the combination of the three forces (social trends, labour market conditions and government policies) actually worsened, rather than relieved, child poverty in Germany.

Faces of child poverty in Germany

Apart from statistics, what does child poverty mean in Germany? Margherita Zander defined three forms of growing up poor in Germany (Zander, 2006):

  1. Old Poverty
  2. New Poverty
  3. Migration Poverty

Old Poverty is typically found in families with an unemployment “tradition:” children more or less “inherit” a life in unemployment and poverty from their parents or even grandparents. Since they don’t have positive examples to change this situation, they learn instead to adapt to this “poverty culture.” Only children with very strong resilience and/or with support from outside the family (schools, youth welfare offices etc.), may get a more positive perspective for life. Old poverty is usually visible (for example old cloths, careless outer appearance, obesity), obvious (easy to recognize) and known (kindergarten nurses sometimes already know the parents from childhood). Often, this means that children of such family background are stigmatized as poor, which makes it even more difficult for them to improve their future perspectives.

New Poverty occurs were unemployment puts families into a new, unfamiliar and unsafe situation. However, a regular income before the job loss and perhaps some bank savings may cushion the financial situation for a while. Also, a functioning social net (relatives, friends and neighbours) may help compensate for the growing financial problems that come gradually or suddenly (for example, long term unemployment, accident or the illness of a parent or child). On one hand, this may help hide the family’s poverty from the “outside world” for a relatively long time (they feel ashamed). On the other hand, exactly this makes it difficult for the “outside world” (teachers, neighbours, kindergarten nurses, social workers etc.) to recognize the family problems and to provide support.

Migration Poverty is not only a German phenomenon but, sadly enough, in Germany the citizenship status has such a significant influence on the risk of (child) poverty that the UNICEF 2005 report “dedicates” Germany an extra mention: While in households headed by German citizens there is no significant change in relative poverty during the nineties (ca. 8 %), the poverty level in non-citizen households has tripled in the same period (from 5 to 15 %; UNICEF, 2005, p. 27). Non-citizens in Germany are not allowed to work on a legal basis, so parents cannot contribute legally to the family income; they are not even allowed to leave the town or city where they seek asylum or have applied for citizenship. They are completely dependent on very small financial benefits. At least their children can attend schools; otherwise their participation in cultural, further educational, sports or other social offerings would be very limited. Social isolation very likely will not promote social and cultural integration of foreign children into our society. It is a prognosis that will possibly lead to more social problems in the future.

Social background and access to education

The PISA2 study of 2003 (PISA-Konsortium Deutschland, 2003) not only revealed that German children have some deficits in reading skills and natural sciences, but most of all it criticized the fact that, unlike other European countries, access to education for German children is obviously directly related to their social origin. Another representative study proves the relation of the educational and social background of parents and the secondary school type their children are attending3. While 65% of children whose parents have no professional training attend a Hauptschule, only 13% of them attend a Gymnasium. On the other hand, only 4% of children whose parents have an academic degree attend a Hauptschule, while 80% of them get better professional perspectives by attending a Gymnasium. A look at the income situation shows the same disadvantageous relation: 65% of the children who grow up in poor families (income below 60% of the median) leave school without a certificate, only 13 % successfully complete the Abitur at a Gymnasium, while the ratio in wealthy families (income over 100% of the median) is 19: 60 (Nöthling, 2007, p.5).

2 PISA – OECD based Programme for International Student Assessment
3 There are three general secondary school types in Germany: Hauptschule (8 years, no certificate, mostly leads to un-trained, low paying jobs), Realschule (10 years, certificate, better options for professional training and further education) and Gymnasium (12/13 years, Abitur (A-level) = entrance to higher education).

The social background and the state of health

The same study showed that there is also a close relation between the social level of parents and the health of their children. While 16% of children from poor parents have generally bad health, only 1 % of upper class children have this problem. More than twice as many poor children suffer from headaches and back aches than rich children, three times more children from low income families suffer from nervousness (Nöthling, 2007, p.6). Again, the social background affects children’s developmental chances... Moreover, when children don’t learn healthy eating habits from their parents, when they don’t experience any positive role models concerning health issues, they probably will adopt unhealthy living habits and pass them to their children.

To summarize, the social background of children in Germany contributes to widen the gulf between the rich and the poor – if no political steps at governmental as well as local levels are taken.

Government and community level social and family policy

Again, one of the key findings of the 2005 UNICEF report -- independent from economical and cultural differences of the investigated countries -- was the following statement:

“Higher government spending on family and social benefits is clearly associated with lower child poverty rates” (UNICEF, 2005, p.4).

This clearly indicates that the main responsibility for fighting child poverty is at the government level. Social political issues cannot be discussed or changed at the federal level without considering and adapting family political issues and reviewing possible consequences from these changes. However, the “abstract” government, family and child policy is put into effect at the community level. The community is more direct and more effective in developing the necessary infrastructure. People can be reached more directly in their communities; government policy can be flanked and aided by suitable local measures to meet the needs of those in need or, even better, to avoid and prevent poverty. As it was said above, family and child policy cannot be separated from social policy goals, at government or local levels. Social policy has to be linked, for instance, with job market policy goals. If not, the weakest will bear the consequences. In Germany family policy focuses very much on the traditional family: both parents available and working. The actual situation is different: more and more children grow up with single parents or in patchwork families, and the new (activating) job market policy demands a very high flexibility regarding the availability of labor forces (follow the job), which often means that one parent is not at home during the week or has to commute several hours a day and so is not available for the family.

The meaning of the local structural leve

What can be done for, in and with the community? We want to focus on two major demands:

First, political model positions about child poverty and poverty prevention have to be established. The responsible local politicians, for example the lord mayor of a community or the local parliament, have to set clear and measurable goals for all responsible professionals (and other local protagonists) involved to cut down the child poverty rate by the end of a legislature period. This should not just be an election promise, but a demand they will finally be judged by.

Second, the social infrastructure of a community is to be improved by establishing and/or optimizing the networking of social protagonists and facilities--such as child and youth support services, kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, youth work, child protection, sports and cultural facilities, health services, family counseling centers, city district management etc.--in order to establish early warning and support systems.

Poverty often happens behind closed doors, in privacy; it is not visible at first, it can be hidden to a certain extent (New Poverty). If no social support is available, children can easily slide into social isolation or worse in situations that threaten their physical and mental well-being and safety. Children from poor families have less learning and experience options because of a lower activity and participation spectrum. The promotion of their talents and interests as well as social integration with peers (i.e. in sports clubs) is limited compared to children from higher income families. Poor children realize these limitations and internalize them as (personal) disadvantages or defects. The less emotional support and encouragement they get from their parents, the more they suffer from the material family situation. Moreover, children need stable living conditions as well as chances for relaxation and recreation to handle all the development and coping challenges. Children of poor families are exposed to multiple stress factors: the parents’ unemployment, poverty, debts, partner conflicts, violence, drug and alcohol abuse etc. and not to forget social exclusion. In such an environment it is especially difficult for children to develop coping, learning and conflict-solving strategies (Chassè, 2005, pp. 51). That’s why local structures are necessary that reach out for children in need as well as their parents to provide as much promotion and support as possible in order to cushion or avoid direct and indirect consequences of poverty. At the local level, conditions should be available that

  • provide and foster a good family climate and parent-child-relations
  • foster social competencies and contacts
  • activate coping resources in children and parents
  • support and foster family activities

This could be realized, for example, through community centers, education counseling, debt counseling, parents’ schools and free or price-reduced access to extracurricular education or sports and family facilities like zoos, swimming pools, holiday camps etc.

Kindergartens: early warning systems and resilience resources

In Germany each child, by law, has the right to attend a kindergarten and, although not always evenly distributed, the country has a very extensive net of kindergartens available. This provides ideal conditions to transform kindergartens into facilities which can be important information and contact resources bundled as early warning systems as well as places to support, promote and strengthen children from poor families. Since the kindergartens already exist, almost no extra costs are needed to install early warning systems. However, it needs the coordination of professionals, services and information dissemination, as well as the establishment of transparent regulations.

Kindergartens are usually situated in residential areas, which mean that they are situated where families live. In a kindergarten, not only do the nurses get into close contact with the parents or other contact persons – and so may hear about problem situations in a family - but parents also get to know each other. Nurses have close contact with child and youth support services of the community or at least know about them and can refer them to parents. Primary schools often cooperate with kindergartens in order to prepare and guide the children’s big step from kindergarten to school. Nurses can use these contacts to provide relevant background knowledge about children from problem families so that teachers know that these children might possibly need special support or protection. Independently working midwives have access to the apartments of young mothers and can inform the kindergarten (or if necessary the police or the youth welfare office directly) of any signs of neglect or violence. Police men and women could act in the same way when they recognize problem situations concerning children during their daily work. Doctors can inform kindergartens of any signs of neglect or violence, like malnutrition, bruises or other injuries. The basis for the sensible information of course, next to knowing about each other and trusting each other, is to have clear regulations concerning a family’s or child’s privacy with the priority on the child’s safety and well-being. More cooperation is possible, depending on the local options (i.e. cultural or sports facilities).

But, kindergartens do not only function as “firefighters” for the safety of children in need; they are also places where a child from a poor family gets stimulation they possibly don’t get from their parents: to learn (among other things, body hygiene or healthy cooking), to discover and unfold creativity, to develop motion or speech abilities and to learn to react properly in conflict situations. The child can participate in group activities and overcome fears of isolation. A kindergarten can be a place of relaxation from stressful situations at home.

Can a kindergarten be a second home? No, that is not the intention, but it can offer chances to grow up safe, integrated, curious and self-conscious. It can help to build and develop resilience resources in a socially disadvantaged child. Last but not least, it can provide parents with support in raising their children in a loving and responsible way, despite difficult economic or other family problems.

“The true measure of a nation’s standing is how well it attends to its children – their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialization, and their sense of being loved, valued, and included in the families and societies into which they are born” (Child poverty in perspective, 2007, p. 3).


Chassé, K. A. (2005). My poor family: Life situations of disadvantaged children in the social change. In Lutz, R. (ed.). Child Reports and Child Policy, Dialogue and Discourse, About Theory and Practice of Social Work. Paolo Freire Verlag, Oldenburg.

Federal Labor Agency. (2007). Monthly Report. Retrieved from

Federal Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women and Youth. (2005). Second Poverty Report of the Federal Government. Retrieved from

Nöthling, C. (2007). Child Poverty: Data and facts, Lobby for Children e.V.,unpublished material, Erfurt.

PISA-Konsortium Deutschland(ed.) (2004): PISA 2003:Ergebnisse des 2. Ländervergleichs. Zusammenfassung. Retrieved from

UNICEF. (2005). Child poverty in rich countries. Retrieved from

UNICEF. (2007). Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well being in rich countries. Retrieved from

Zander, M. (2006). Growing up in poverty - in a welfare state. In Lutz, R. (ed.) Kinderarmut erkennen, wirksam handeln, Paolo Freire Verlag, Oldenburg.



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