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February 16, 2020 6 min read

“Education is wisdom to the youth, encouragement to the elderly, wealth to the poor and decoration to the rich.”

Diogenes von Sinope (greek Philosopher, 399 – 323 v. Chr.)


Too poor to get educated? How seriously economic differences affect the equality of children in the education system is shown by recent studies. Their findings: kids from lower-income-households are having a hard time rising up. Why that is the case, how deep the gaps really are and what can be done? Read on!

The fact that poverty exists in Germany is in and of itself a bitter pill to swallow. Especially since we all frequently read about Germany being the export-champion of the world and having record tax-collections every year. Therefore, one must assume that Germany should be the land were milk and honey flow and where streets are paved with gold. Not really comforting is it when politicians and experts assure that what we are dealing with is not “poverty” in the real sense but “relative poverty”. Well, yes, of course it’s relative – but nevertheless it is real though. Real enough in any case to make those affected miserable.

Before we have a closer look at the link between income and education we need to discuss some facts about poverty in Germany that may be news to you. Being poor in this country means that you have less than 60% of the average income per month. A poor person accordingly must survive on less than 1.000€ per month. A family of four must earn at least 2.000€ or poverty beckons as well. Many low-wage-workers, retirees and senior citizens are forced to live with a lot less then that. (Maybe we need to speak of “relative living” in these cases)

Poor Germany

According to the most recent Poverty- and wealthmonitor of the federal government (published 2017) 15,7% of all german workers are living in poverty. This is 13 million people we are talking about. Every tenth worker is therefore – despite working daily – threatened by poverty – thanks to wage-dumping and a growing low-income-sector. Ten years ago only half as many people dropped below the poverty line. And those who look for an explanation why the cues in front of shops selling cheap groceries get longer or why you see elderly people looking for deposit bottles in trash cans – here you go.

If you not only take the working population but include retirees and children as well as people on welfare Germany has more than 16 million people living below the threshold of poverty. With these few facts it should be clear how serious the situation has become. Anyhow poverty in Germany usually remains invisible. Our poor people are getting hidden – in statistics and social housing projects. The more than 600.000 people which according to social organisations are not even having a home anymore do no longer come up in any statistic.

Call it relative poverty if you must, but: those who need to exist on 1.000€ per month and pay rent, the electric bill, cell phone and internet fees plus other fixed costs of livelihood may already find themselves broke half-way into the month. This might mean an empty fridge or red numbers on the bank account. In many German cities prices for rent are shooting up like mad which makes life even harder especially for students and single households.

It’s a hard knock life

What’s most disturbing: 19,7% of all children in Germany live in poverty according to the data collected by social welfare organisations. In absolute numbers: 2,7 million of kids are poor. This is every fifth child. The underage youth in Berlin, Bremen, Hessen and Saxony is particularly affected. In the capitol Berlin statistically every third child lives in a poor household. This means that 173.000 children are living in poverty in Berlin alone.

What “relative poverty” means in a concrete sense to children of poor – or as we say: low-income – households is described by social organisations like Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk as follows: worse education, worse health and nutrition, a feeling of shame and exclusion, a lack of self-confidence. These effects and many more are what can be expected. Learning on an empty stomach? For many kids a daily occurrence. And the more kids are left behind at the starting line of their education the bigger their disadvantages will be later on – in education, in professional and private life.

The Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk wanted to find out more about the connection between poverty and education and published a Europe-wide study that showed: there is only few European countries – Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria among them – where the educational success of children depends so heavily on the economic situation of the parents. Children that come from a low-income and low-education-background have a chance of 61% to end up in poverty themselves. Are the parents academics this number drops to only 6%.

The consequences of child poverty for the educational success of the coming generation was described by the author and journalist Ulrike Meyer-Timpe in her book “Unsere armen Kinder: wie Deutschland seine Zukunft verspielt” (2008). According to her it is not only a scandal that something like child poverty has to exist in Germany but the politicians must understand too that poor and left behind children will turn eventually into teens without dreams and perspectives and into adults with no chance on the labour market –building up pure social explosive as we speak. The other way around it should be: investing heavily into the education of the next generation is an endeavour that pays for itself many times over. At least since 2001 – when the alarming Pisa-Study came out – this should be well known to everyone involved. Meyer-Timpe writes in her book:

“The education of our children will decide the fate of our country. Only if we grant them an education that matches their talents and potentials will they one day be capable of doing their part to finance our welfare system. If we now fail to act with everything in our power against the dramatically growing child poverty we all will pay a heavy price for it in a few years. And our kids will have to pay even more.”

Kickstart for smart kids

At the moment German politicians seem sound asleep. The gap between rich and poor remains deep. What has developed is some sort of caste system. Kids that aim at higher education and want to climb the social ladder have to work twice as hard and seem to swim upstream. And all that while exactly this – the equality of children in school – should be one of the main criteria to judge the quality of an educational system. Germany needs every talent it can get these days but the school system does not seem to deliver optimal results.

To understand what poverty really means for educational success not much fantasy is needed. The more available income a family has the smaller the likelihood of their kids going to school without a proper breakfast. Richer parents might also have the ability to find a better school in a less problematic area, support their kids with all needed materials and recruit a teacher for private lessons if necessary. Almost one million German kids (about 9%) are already sent to private schools – just to be sure. Poor parents do not have many of these possibilities – more and more often they can’t even afford school trips anymore. Going skiing with the classmates: 180€. The feeling of being a second-grade-human: priceless.

EMERALD BERLIN believes that there is not much in this world more important than hiqh-quality education for all. That is why we are grateful to support the Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk e.V. in their efforts to give kids from disadvantaged families a head-start. Every year the organisation is giving away thousands of school bags filled with everything a school child needs to be prepared for learning. For more information on this project please check our website. In cooperation with Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk we have created a unique fahion-collection to spread knowledge and awareness. As always you find the statement-collection in our shop. Thank you so much for your support.


The author of this blog-article is Marc Dassen. You want to leave him a comment or ask a question? Send him an e-mail via

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