Is poverty necessary to sustain capitalism?

Social division and corona capitalism


The article first examines the socio-economic conditions of the social division processes in the corona crash in order to then consider the implications for child rights and (child) poverty in a rich country.

Anyone who talks about social division must not only deal with poverty and social disadvantage. Even more so in very rich societies like Germany it is also necessary to talk about the enormous social prosperity that is achieved by everyone, but only appropriated and determined by very few. From this analysis it can be seen how this society entered the corona crash and how it exits again.

The fact that Corona and the measures, on the other hand, do not (d) have the same effect on all age and social groups now seems to be a truism (see Bertelsmann Stiftung 2020). Corona and the lockdown meant enormous restrictions on their civil, social and cultural rights to protection, promotion and participation, especially in the areas of child welfare, health and education (cf. Spieß 2020; United Nations 2020; especially for children and especially for minors in poverty). UNICEF / Save the Children 2020; UN Committee on Children's Rights 2020; Children's Commission of the German Bundestag 2020). Accordingly, the article first examines the socio-economic conditions of the social division processes in the corona crash in order to then consider the implications for children's rights and children in poverty.

Manifestations of social division in the corona crisis

According to the globalization-critical non-governmental organization Oxfam in September 2020 "around 400 million jobs were lost worldwide during the pandemic (...) and up to half a billion people (could) slide into poverty" (Frankfurter Rundschau 2020c, p. 14). But at the same time, according to the development agency, "32 of the most profitable companies in the world earned a total of US $ 109 billion more than in 2019, according to estimates, despite the corona crisis." (Oxfam 2020, p. 3 f.) Therefore, it is astonishing no longer that the global "Club of Millionaires" is growing, the rich are gaining worldwide (Frankfurter Rundschau of July 9th, 2020; see Frankfurter Rundschau 2020c) and also in Germany the top percent alone a third and the top tenth a total of two thirds of all assets may name his property without having to pay significant inheritance or even property taxes (cf. Schröder et al. 2020, in: DIW weekly report 29/2020, p. 511 f.). When poverty is growing, it seems almost trivial to know that wealth will also rise. All those who complain about a lack of public spending and empty coffers as well as falling incomes should therefore be told: It is definitely not due to a lack of wealth in our extremely rich societies that we have to reckon with increasing (public) poverty.

While more than six million employees are still on short-time work in Germany in September 2020 (see Frankfurter Rundschau 2020b) and can therefore expect enormous losses in income, some profiteers from the crisis were already in a good mood at the beginning of the Corona crash. Because not all are suffering from the corona-related economic crashes. Financial speculators like the fund manager Hendrik Leber can gain a lot from the stock market crash. When asked by Focus Online whether a so-called value investor would be happy about a stock market crash, the so-called finance professional replied: “Yes, I told my team, let's go hunting. Because we are facing a number of great opportunities, stocks that have always been too expensive up to now. I'm in a really positive mood! ”(Focus 2020).

Meanwhile, the Paritätische Gesamtverband was outraged by the alleged failure of the market and did not notice that its criticism had revealed the basic principle of capitalist markets. "If a respirator doesn't even cost 50 cents in mid-February and € 13 six weeks later, this is a textbook example of market failure," said the Paritätischer Gesamtverband in a press release on March 30, 2020 (see Paritätischer Gesamtverband 2020). But it is more of a textbook example of the laws of capitalism. This is not a market failure - this is how it works. This is how capitalism works, which especially in times of crisis reveals its absolutely cynical nature. Those who do not like that have to work for a common good-oriented economy with priority common property, which leaves profit-oriented capitalism behind. As Gabriele Winker puts it, “the purpose of a capitalist economy (...) is the utilization of the capital employed. For this, labor must be available in sufficient quantity and quality. In a capitalist society, this is primarily guaranteed unpaid through care work in families. This is where the future generation of workers is born, raised and cared for, and it is here that the labor force of the current workers is restored. Since in neoliberal capitalism all employable people have to pay for their own living through gainful employment, there is no time for this family care work. This problem is exacerbated by a state policy of austerity that saves on the social infrastructure, with the consequence that there is a lack of personnel and resources almost everywhere in public services. This is particularly evident in times of Corona in hospitals and nursing homes due to the lack of nursing staff or protective equipment ”(Winker 2020). And it could be added that the (overcoming of the) Corona crisis (has) intensified the privatization of risks and the re-traditionalization of family and gender relations - and not only in Germany (cf.Charrel 2020; Neuhaus 2020 ).

During the onset of the economic crisis, it quickly became clear that the consequences of the crash would primarily be borne by the wage earners. In particular, the digital winners of the crisis from Apple to Microsoft and Google to Amazon have so far withdrawn from public funding of adequate social systems and adequate health care through so-called creative tax planning. Conversely, the strongest were often served the most by the economic aid of the states, so that even die-hard entrepreneurs pondered: "With the current discussions about rescue measures and taking on the burdens of the crisis, I could easily become a socialist," complained the head of the hotel group "Motel One", Dieter Müller, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung v. April 29, 2020 on the federal government's "rescue measures" for banks, for example (cf. Köhn 2020). Large corporations such as VW, Daimler, BMW, TUI, etc. continued to distribute billions in dividends to their shareholders, while they sent hundreds of thousands of their employees on short-time work, so that they not only had serious wage losses, but taxpayers and contributors part of their salaries and who were allowed to finance dividends. Even in the worst phases of crisis and during the worst times of crisis in spring 2020, arms production with all its accompanying phenomena was maintained (which at least some priests in Italy took as an opportunity to criticize this; cf. 2020). All of this can be seen as proof of the thesis that the corona crisis and how it was dealt with did not have the same effect on everyone, and indeed that it actually intensified the redistribution from the bottom up.

Causes and structural foundations

As the political scientist Christoph Butterwegge from Cologne rightly writes, economic, social and political inequality (in Germany) has developed in such a way that the much sought-after “social cohesion” is dwindling and there are good reasons why we can literally speak of a “torn republic”. “In today's capitalism, poverty and wealth are so structurally interlocked that both tend to increase. The sometimes scandalously low (dumping) wages for millions of precariously employed people mean high profits, dividends and returns for entrepreneurs, capital investors and stock exchange traders ”(Butterwegge 2020, p. 110). So while the social division results in economic crises, wars and civil wars on a global scale, which in turn lead to greater migration movements, in Germany social cohesion and representative democracy are threatened.

However, at the end of the 20th century, the British social and universal historian Eric Hobsbawm, who died in 2012, pointed out that redistribution from top to bottom is a key issue in the development of modern societies. In 1995 he predicted that the politics of the new millennium would be determined more by social redistribution than by economic growth, also taking into account ecological connections. At the same time, he was not as naive as some eco-capitalist demands for the power of markets for more sustainability, as formulated, for example, in an interview with the chairmen of the Greens Habeck and Baerbock (see 2019). Instead, Hobsbawm suspected (1995, p. 711): "The market-independent allocation of resources, or at least a sharp restriction of the market-based distribution, will be inevitable in order to take the impending ecological crisis to a head". One can safely assume that with growing prosperity on earth there will also be growing inequality on a political and legal level (Hobsbawm 2000, p. 163 f.). But this also addresses an aspect of power and rule interests in the area of ​​tension between poverty and wealth, which is often ignored when dealing with the topics.

According to Hobsbawm, the division of wealth is “dramatically more unequal” (ibid., P. 113). By “dramatic” he means “that a very small number of people, often individual individuals, get rich in a way that has been unprecedented at least since the time of a feudal society (...)” (ibid.). Hobsbawm believes the amount of wealth available to individuals today is absolutely incredible: “Globally, the wealth in the hands of one percent of the world's population is immense. How will this affect policy? It is not clear. We have evidence from the United States where private individuals are today in a position to campaign for presidential candidates or to influence them effectively with their private financial means. Today the rich are able to do things that once could only be done by large collective organizations. I'm not sure we really understood the deep implications of this phenomenon ”(ibid., P. 114). In the affluent countries, the fact is still evident “that those who are born with a material advantage can observe in the course of their lives that this advantage increases exponentially many times over. Numerous studies have shown that the poor die earlier than the rich and are on average less healthy than them. Undoubtedly the rich also have their problems, but their relative advantage in terms of life expectancy is beyond doubt ”(ibid., Pp. 208 f.).

This is the direction in which global capitalism has developed and there seems to be nothing and nobody who can stop it. Many theories of contemporary sociologists, however, according to Butterwegge, abstract from socio-economic production, property and class relations as the central structural element of bourgeois-capitalist societies. Instead, they narrow down again and again to the sphere of consumption and its sensational abundance of offers (Butterwegge 2020, p. 117 f.). The published opinion has never seriously dealt with the problem of socio-economic inequality in this country and has practically never explored real possibilities for its solution. “In the main media that shape everyday awareness, wealth (...) is more likely to be veiled and poverty played down. The same applies to the established parties and politicians, whose entire endeavors are directed towards justifying the existing distributional relationships and their own co-responsibility for them ”(ibid., P. 143). Butterwegge approves the position of the sociologist Jürgen Ritsert, according to which most sociological approaches during the various phases of the history of the Federal Republic of Germany pursued the goal of making the classes disappear through theory. He leaves it open whether the latest national and international discourses on social inequality (e.g. Thomas Piketty and Pope Francis) point to the beginning of a new phase in the perception of social disparities (cf. Butterwegge 2020, p. 205).

Unequal corona consequences

In an interview with ZEIT on July 16, 2020, the chairman of the children's commission of the German Bundestag, Matthias Seestern-Pauly (FDP), had to clearly reprimand the non-compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child during the Corona crisis: “The concerns of the children in the Corona crisis were not sufficiently noticed - we in the Commission agree on that. That is why we issued a declaration that the rights enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the needs of children must not be disregarded even in the Corona crisis ”(Schoener 2020, p. 28).

It could not be overlooked that the decisions of the federal government during the pandemic did not give priority to the best interests of the child. Central property rights were ignored. Children in poverty and in precarious living conditions were and are particularly affected (e.g. around three million children in the legal circle of the education and participation package, who overnight free lunch in the daycare or school facility without compensation was deleted). Elementary protection, welfare and participation rights of children and young people were violated in the Corona crisis in Germany (for example, children, young people, student representatives, youth associations and children's rights organizations were mostly not asked or were only informed about what to do with intended for them and their school and extracurricular care, educational and activity facilities). The measures have also contributed to increasing child poverty (cf. Houben 2020). In contrast, alternatives and counter-strategies based on children's perspectives should combine concepts of poverty reduction, the participation of young people and the promotion of social infrastructure that do not lose sight of the socio-political context (cf. Klundt 2020, p. 15 f.).

Meanwhile, the psychosocial consequences of the Corona crisis (and the measures taken) cannot be overlooked, according to the "Copsy" study (Corona and Psyche) of the Hamburg University Clinic Eppendorf (UKE). Before the pandemic, a third of all children and adolescents surveyed felt that they were “under severe psychological stress”, and since the Corona crisis it has been 71%. "27 percent of the children and adolescents and 37 percent of the parents surveyed stated that there were more arguments in the family" (Frankfurter Rundschau of July 11th and 12th, 2020). These results astonished even the researchers, as the child and adolescent psychiatrist Ulrike Ravens-Sieberer from the UKE commented on the enormous deterioration in psychological well-being: "That it is so clear, however, surprised us too." (Frankfurter Rundschau, 11 ./12.07.2020, p. 3).

And, as the recent “Factsheet” from the Bertelsmann Foundation on “Child Poverty in Germany” from 2020 once again demonstrated, the developments in the area of ​​child poverty have just been intensified with the Corona crisis. More than every fifth child in Germany grows up in poverty, which affects 2.8 million children and young people under the age of 18. Child and youth poverty has remained at this high level for years. Despite a long period of good economic development, the numbers have hardly declined. Child poverty has been an unsolved structural problem in Germany for years. “The Corona crisis will further exacerbate the situation for poor children and their families. A significant increase in the numbers of poverty is to be expected. Growing up in poverty limits, shames and determines the lives of children and young people - today and with a view to their future. This also has considerable negative consequences for society ”(Bertelsmann Foundation 2020, p. 1). Avoiding child poverty must be a political priority right now. It requires new social and family policy concepts, which include structures for the consistent participation of children and young people and the safeguarding of their financial needs (through a so-called participation allowance or basic security; cf. ibid.).

Meanwhile, people with low incomes in Germany are particularly affected by the corona pandemic. According to a study by the Hans Böckler Foundation, the number of people in employment who suffered a loss of income between April and July 2020 rose from 20 to 26%. If, however, 22% of households with a net income of more than € 3,200 complained about wage losses, households with a monthly net income of less than € 1,500 were at least 40% and for those with a monthly net income of less than € 2,600, it was still almost a third of those affected (see Müller 2020, p. 5).

At the same time, the researcher Shan Huang at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin) emphasizes that Corona threatens socially disadvantaged more than others. Those who are most severely affected by the virus are those who are already socially disadvantaged. Those who also come from ethnic minorities are exposed to a particularly high risk of disease and mortality. “In the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they are four to five times more likely to be hospitalized, regardless of age. Similar surveys by Public Health England show that when demographic effects are taken into account, mortality among ethnic minorities in Great Britain is up to twice as high ”(Huang 2020, p. 12). According to various US studies among African-American or immigrant populations in the USA, the test probability is lower, the test positive rates are significantly higher and infections among socially disadvantaged people are systematically under-recorded. For Germany, an initial analysis by the AOK Rheinland / Hamburg and the University Hospital Düsseldorf also points in the similar direction of higher corona health risks with lower social status - using the example of unemployment. According to this, "an increased risk of severe corona courses in the event of unemployment" can be recognized (ibid.).

At the global level, various aid organizations fear that the number of hungry people on this earth could rise again to over a billion people if the "fire accelerator" Corona is already affected by climate change, conflicts and natural phenomena such as B. meet locusts plagued crisis countries of the global south. “The Welthungerhilfe boss warned against viewing lockdowns as a panacea in the pandemic and thereby underestimating the collateral damage that could result. Investments in developing countries fell ”(Frankfurter Rundschau 2020a, p. 13).

The essay “Rethinking International Social Work” by Ronald Lutz and Tanja Kleibl also deals with the “Exacerbation of global inequality caused by Covid-19” (Lutz and Kleibl 2020, p. 247 ff.). The authors have no illusions about their socio-economic and exploitative conditions: “Global inequality must be understood as a historically evolved phenomenon of colonialism, imperialism and capitalism” (ibid., P. 247). They report on the findings of the aid organizations “Bread for the World” or “Misereor”, according to which in the global south, due to a lack of social security and infrastructure after the lockdown, “possibly more people will die from the consequences of the curfew than from the virus itself” (ibid., P. 248). Following a few instructive examples from India, South Africa, Malawi, Bangladesh, Colombia, and Brazil on the most vulnerable groups in their respective societies, Lutz and Kleibl demand that "social work (...) must become more political at all levels" (ibid., P. 250) . At the end of the essay, the call for “a radical change (s) in perspective, language and categories” is added to your discussable and hopeful appeal of the World Social Forum “Another world is possible”, which seems very worthy of support.


In this way, the causes of socio-economic inequality can be explained by neoliberal modernization, which is often referred to as “globalization”, as well as by wrong decisions and wrong decisions by those in charge of politics. Since socio-economic inequality is rooted in capitalist relations of production, property and domination, and the rise in inequality is not the natural consequence of the digital revolution, knowledge economy and bold creative destruction, the consequences of political decisions must also be taken into account. As Butterwegge emphasizes, the consequences of social inequality can be observed in the increasing polarization of society, the precarization of wage labor and the pauperization of a growing part of the population, while the political division must also be contextualized as a no less problematic result of the socio-economic division ( see Butterwegge 2020, p. 254 ff.).

Many poverty researchers research correct and needs-based solutions for socio-political problems and against societal polarization. Obstacles why these wise and reasonable suggestions are not regularly adopted or applied are often underexposed. They require the theoretical-analytical examination of processes of (primary) distribution, tax policy, economic conflicts of interest and socio-economic power relations as a whole. So z. For example, reasons for child poverty, such as divorce, single parent status, migration background or unemployment, are often confused with the underlying causes in the existing economic and social system (cf. Klundt 2019, p. 128 ff.). As a result, in poverty research, social (work) science and sometimes also in practical social work, it takes a back seat to the fact that socially fair family and social policy and good education, care and labor market policy also apply to children of unemployed, single or immigrant parents enable a poverty-free life. The author does not hide the fact that a perspective that appears necessary to him theoretically and practically has to deal with interests, power and domination, i.e. also with the beneficiaries of the existing order, whereby anti-capitalism literally has no alternative for even a halfway democratic and social constitutional state, as prescribed by the Basic Law, is to be viewed.


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  1. Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences, Magdeburg, Germany

    Michael Klundt

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Correspondence to Michael Klundt.

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Klundt, M. Social Division and Corona Capitalism. Social extra45, 13-18 (2021).

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  • Social division
  • Children's rights
  • poverty
  • Covid-19
  • Pauperization