Poverty What Does It Mean To Be Poor?

Poverty is measured on the basis of income, but that is often too one-dimensional for such a complex phenomenon. Researchers have developed better ways of defining who falls below the poverty line, but do those concepts stand up to the test?
Foto: Philipp Jeske

"What is there to eat today," Manfred Huber* calls out to the woman at the cash register. "The same as always!" she shouts back. Huber looks confused. How's he supposed to know what the "same as always" means? It's been years since his last visit to Seehaus, which is possibly Munich's most beautiful beer garden. Yet how can the cashier be expected to know that this dapper retiree in his leather jacket hasn't been able to afford Seehaus for some years now?

It was a dumb question anyway, Huber decides a few minutes later when he finds himself sitting in front of a beer, obatzda cheese spread and a pretzel. He wouldn't have wanted anything else, anyway. He's sitting in the beer garden on the bank of the Kleinhesseloher Lake in the city's massive English Garden. Just like he used to. At his favorite place.

Huber is cold, but he doesn't care. Sitting here enjoying his pretzel and his beer, he feels like he's a part of the social life of his city of Munich again. It's a place where people with money can live very well. Unfortunately, Huber doesn't have any. "What bothers me is that I haven't been able to indulge in a treat for 20 years now." That's how long the 72-year-old has been receiving social welfare support. Just being able to go to the beer garden a few times a year and buy clothing when he needs it would be enough for him, he says, before taking a sip. "When you live as a poor person in a rich city like Munich, it's twice as bad. I was also poor as a child, but so was everyone back then."

He furtively looks down at the soles of his shoes, which are worn through. "When it rains, it soaks through," he says. Huber bought his leather jacket some 40 years ago and the inner lining is tattered. But he takes very good care of the leather. Beneath it, he wears his only shirt that isn't worn ragged. The worst, he says, would be if others could see his poverty. "I used to think: If things get that bad, I'll kill myself."

Traditionally, beer gardens are places where Munich's poor and rich intermingle, where a bank director might be found sitting next to an unskilled laborer. According to convention, people are only required to buy their drinks at beer gardens but are allowed to bring their own food to save money. "But what good does that do me when a half liter of beer costs four euros or more?" Huber asks. That is the daily amount allotted in the monthly payments made to recipients of Germany's long-term welfare benefits, known as Hartz IV, for food and non-alcoholic drinks.

Huber, generally an amiable man, gets angry when he talks about Hartz IV, the name given to long-term welfare payments for the unemployed following dramatic cuts made under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Huber has brought along photographs of his worn-out sofa and scruffy cabinets, which date back to 1972. "You get €11 a month for furniture and €1.23 for a refrigerator. How's that supposed to work?" he asks. The distrust of welfare recipients displayed by the authorities bothers him. He calls the politicians who approved the Hartz IV welfare reforms "criminals." He says you can't live off of it -- you can only live like a vegetable. When asked about the fact that the benefits are also supposed to be enough to allow recipients to participate in society, he laughs bitterly. He says he spent much of last summer, the most glorious seen in decades, on his balcony. The public swimming pool was too expensive for him.

The high cost of living in Munich is a product of the city's incredible rise. It is home today to top universities, high-tech clusters and five companies on Germany's DAX index of leading stocks.

For a long time, Huber rose along with the city. He came to Munich 44 years ago to attend university. He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and took a job at the German engineering giant Siemens. In 1979, he left and became self-employed as an IT specialist working on systems integration, which held the promise of a lucrative career with a bright future. He moved into a large home, loved his work, his motorcycle, his beer garden. He had a large social circle. He had retirement insurance and had inherited a house from his parents on a large piece of property on the shores of popular Lake Chiemsee, at the edge of the Alps south of Munich.


But at the beginning of the 1990s, his life came crashing down around him. One of his main customers stopped paying. He fought for years to get the unpaid money and restructured his debt to get seed capital for his new business plan. He fought desperately -- and ultimately in vain. In 1997, he was forced to capitulate. By that point, he had already been unable to work for two years and was on welfare. He lost his family home in a foreclosure and his pension and retirement insurance plan was seized. His landlord evicted him. Manfred Huber was ruined.

"You don't get over something like that," he says, pausing. "But then I thought to myself: At least you now have time for your mother." He brought his sick mother up to Munich, visiting her daily in her nursery home for 15 years. After she passed away in 2012 he scrimped and saved to buy shoes for her funeral. Today, he has very few acquaintances left. When they would ask him to join them in the beer garden, he would come up with countless excuses for why he couldn't go. Eventually they stopped asking. He found himself unable to admit to them that he couldn't afford it. He says he only has one close friend left.

Today, someone else is picking up the tab. For one day, he's once again part of the beer garden and its culture. He even saved two euros that had been planned for groceries. As he departs, he pulls the two-euro coin out of his bag and places it on the plate in front of the bathroom attendant. She warmly thanks him. Huber smiles.

A Problem of Definition

According to the most commonly used statistic, a person is at the poverty line when he or she earns less than 60 percent of the median income. Currently, that definition includes 15.4 percent of Germans. For a person living alone, the poverty threshold is €917 a month. For families with two children, that figure is €1,926.

But are these definitions sufficient for defining poverty?


Here's a simple exercise: Let's assume that Manfred Hubert's business gone bankrupt -- that it had continued successfully and that he had recently sold it. At 65, his retirement insurance policy would have been paid out, he would still own his family home at Lake Chiemsee, he would probably still be living in his apartment in Munich and he would be meeting his friends in the beer garden whenever he wanted.

Even if that had been Huber's reality, he would still be considered poor, because after 20 years of paying into the system, his pension would still be under the 60 percent limit.

A single criterion -- income -- is insufficient for defining poverty. It labels many people as poor who feel untouched by poverty. It likewise fails to take into account those whose earnings place them above the poverty line, but who must nevertheless suffer depravations to make ends meet. Such depravations can be experienced in many areas: Is the person ill? Jobless? Is the apartment too small or is it in disrepair? Is the person lonely?

Researchers are trying to find more balanced ways to approach the complex issue of poverty by taking into account these and other dimensions. Different concepts are also being explored for providing a multi-dimensional poverty index -- even in a relatively prosperous country like Germany.

One can and should debate the individual criteria to be included in a poverty index. Two further cases underscore why such a debate is necessary.

Foto: Philipp Jeske

And Then Came Benjamin

The Ehlers family has a small game they like to play with their guests. "What do you see in the picture?" asks Marlene. The six-year-old girl hops on the couch and points to the white canvas on the wall. Most say "nothing" and fall into the trap. "That's not true -- you have to look more closely," Marlene says, climbing onto the arm rest and pointing to the center of the picture. In fact, there is a small red dot.

The Ehlers family is comprised of Jakob, Maria, Marlene and Benjamin along with their parents Elena and Stefan. And just as in the game, the first image one gets of the Ehlers family can be deceptive. They live in a white house near the university town of Göttingen. Rabbits hop around in the backyard, a wooden horse stands on the patio and buzzing can be heard from a beehive. The parents work as nurses and the three older children are in kindergarten, elementary school and high school. "We have built up modest prosperity," Elena Ehlers says.

One might think that such a classic middle class family would be free of existential fears. But Elena and Stefan are plagued by them.

Shortly before Benjamin's first birthday, the family decided that Elena would not immediately start working night shifts again after her one year of maternity leave. Her youngest son needed her too much at night and the burden for the family would have been too great. But only one nurse's salary wouldn't have been enough.


The Ehlers have always been resourceful when it comes to getting by with little money. Stefan Ehlers rides his bicycle to work for a total roundtrip journey of 24 kilometers (15 miles). Most of their furniture has been "rescued" -- found in classified ads or at flea markets -- and much of their clothing is second hand. Stefan did most of the remodeling of their house on his own. For vacation, they often visit friends or go camping. They make juice with the apples they pick.

Now the family is looking for a solution to their temporary income problem. Elena has called the local employment agency, the social welfare office and Germany's Federal Ministry of Labor. She has no problem asking for help. "But it really hurt my feelings the way I was treated by some people." Sometimes she felt as though she had to justify the life she has chosen. In the end, the outcome was always the same: The family was ineligible for state aid because their income was too high and was deemed to be above the poverty line. "We have fallen into a gap in the system," Elena says.

Their situation feels hopeless. The mortgage payments for the house, which they bought when they were only a family of four, with fewer expenses, are more than they can afford now. So what do they do? Sell the house and move into a more affordable apartment somewhere in the greater Göttingen area? Futile. They discuss their worries only with their closest friends. "It's a societal taboo," Elena explains. "You just don't want to be perceived as being poor." She finally found short-term, flexible aid on the internet through the Association of Large Families (KRFD). She was then connected with a foundation that has agreed to provide her family with several hundred euros a month for six months.


What can one demand from society? What is one entitled to? These are questions the couple find themselves asking again and again. They actually don't want that much for themselves. "It would be nice if the joy that our children provide us with wouldn't be overshadowed by worries about money," says Elena. They want to treat all their children equally, but both of the older children have savings accounts and have enjoyed summer vacations with their parents. Marlene and Benjamin won't have the luxury of enjoying those privileges. Elena says the family's per-capita income has shrunk significantly with each additional child. There's a reason why there aren't more large families, she says. "A child shouldn't be like having a Mercedes, where you ask yourself before the purchase: Can I afford this?"

The biggest worry the parents have is the prospects their children will have when they grow up. There is very little social mobility left in Germany. Most people remain in the same social class they are born into and education opportunities in Germany are strongly dependent on parents' incomes. At school, Elena would never ask for support for school books and field trip costs, even if she were entitled to do so. "I'd be afraid that it would remain in the back of the teacher's mind," she says.

Do the Ehlers feel poor? The 38-year-old shakes her head vehemently in response. "That wouldn't be fair to all the people who truly are poor." Elena thinks about them often. "We were threatened with poverty, but we were lucky. But what about all the people out there who don't have so much strength?"

Foto: Philipp Jeske

'No, I'm not Poor!'

When Monika Kramer makes coffee in the morning, her gaze inevitably fixes itself on a piece of paper on the kitchen wall. "Self-sufficiency is totally OK," she wrote on it in pen. The paper has yellowed and the edges are curling. It was meant for those days when Kramer struggles with her conviction that wealth and poverty cannot be measured with money.

For the past three years, the 51-year-old has had to top up her income with Hartz IV social welfare benefits. Initially, she had more money each month than the usual benefit payment because she was allowed to keep a little bit of the part-time salary she earned as a receptionist. But her income still fell below the official poverty line. Since January 2015, she has obtained a sick leave benefit and must now get by on the standard monthly social welfare payment. A single person in Germany, for example, receives €404 ($458) a month, plus rent.

"No, I'm not poor!" says Kramer. "I have an apartment, medical care and clean water. So many people in this world don't even have that. Compared to people in other parts of the globe, I'm rich." Living as she does in the city of Aachen, though, she however can see how much more other people can afford and how people judge others based on their material circumstances. At times like that, it requires a lot of imagination for her to feel rich.

On some days, it's easier for her to go without things than it is on others. She would love to be able to go to the theater more than once a year, purchase more Fair Trade products and go to a café for a slice of cake now and then.


For the past 14 years, Kramer has been a single parent. After completing an apprenticeship, she finished her high school degree at night school. She then started university studies and took on jobs that she could reconcile with parenting -- first part-time and later fulltime. She was able to make ends meet, but things were always very tight.

Kramer makes the best of her situation. She enjoys nice clothing, though she buys most of it at second-hand stores. She likes meeting up with friends, sometimes even in a café. "A coffee there costs a euro. I can afford that," she says. She also enjoys visiting exhibitions and concerts if they are free. She constantly has her budget in the back of her mind. She even tries to set a little bit aside for unanticipated expenditures.

Kramer says the one thing lacking in her life right now is good health. She's seriously ill, but the chances she will recover are good. At times during the past year, she had great difficulty moving, but she is now once again able to take strolls in Aachen's parks. "My prosperity is the fact that I am able to get back out into nature again," she says. Kramer says she also wants to get back to work as soon as possible. Gainful employment provides her with self-affirmation. "Giving feels better than taking." When asked if anything will still be lacking once she regains her health, Kramer doesn't pause even for a second. "Nothing," she says.

Poverty remains a stigma

By definition, Kramer is considered to be poor -- but she doesn't feel like she is. Even as someone who receives a government welfare supplement to eke out a living, Kramer will no longer fall under the definition of poor once she has her health back and can start working again -- at least under a multi-dimensional definition of poverty. She is, after all, well educated, attends cultural events and maintains friendships. Relatives and friends step in here and there to help out with things like repairing her vacuum cleaner or obtaining new furniture for her apartment. Prosperity, too, has many dimensions.

For his part, Manfred Huber will still be considered poor no matter what measure is used. He achieved a lot in his life, but he lost both his business and his pension. He's chronically ill and has to make do with dilapidated furniture. He's also lost a circle of friends that was once large. Even if he were to receive higher welfare payments, many aspects of his life would still be shaped by hardship.

The Ehlers family is not considered to be poor by definition, but the birth of their fourth child pushed them over the edge financially. Their example makes it clear that even though Germany spends more than €200 billion a year on promoting children and families, flexibility is sometimes wanting when it comes to preventing families from slipping into poverty.

Poverty remains a stigma in Germany. That's why we've changed the names in accordance with the wishes of Mrs. Kramer, Mr. Huber and the Ehlers family.


This report is a part of the Expedition BeyondTomorrow project .

Authors: Florian Diekmann, Britta Kollenbroich

Photos, videos: Philipp Jeske

Picture desk: Philipp Jeske, Nasser Manouchehri

Animation: Roman Höfner, Jens Radü

Design, layout: Elsa Hundertmark, Jens Kuppi

Programming and infographics: Michael Niestedt, Chris Kurt, Guido Grigat, Cornelia Baumermann

Fact-checking: Peter Wahle

Final editing: Dörte Karsten, Hannah Panten

Editing, coordination: Jule Lutteroth

Translation: Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey

BeyondTomorrow project: Anna Behrend