Is economic inequality really that bad?

Education - not a silver bullet against poverty and social inequality

Christoph Butterwegge

To person

Prof. Dr. Christoph Butterwegge is a political scientist and poverty researcher. Until his retirement in 2016, he taught political science at the University of Cologne. Most recently, in April 2018, together with Gudrun Hentges and Bettina Lösch, his book “On the way to another republic? Neoliberalism, locational nationalism and right-wing populism ”. More texts by the author at

A plea for more financial redistribution from Prof. Christoph Butterwegge

Across the political spectrum, the socio-political importance of education is emphasized. As important as the educational support of socially disadvantaged children is, it falls short as a means against poverty and social inequality. The issues of material redistribution are in danger of being lost sight of.

Children play on a playground in Berlin Marzahn, Hellersdorf in a prefabricated housing estate. (& copy picture-alliance, ZB - photo report)

In the "modern knowledge society", education is downright fetishized. In competition with other "business locations", it is said everywhere, a high level of qualification of the population is a decisive location factor and an increase in "human capital" is the key to economic prosperity. If you believe the mainstream in politics, business, science and journalism, education can also cure or at least contain almost all social ills, be it rampant crime, excessive drug abuse, youthful aggressiveness, violent right-wing extremism or (child) poverty and social inequality.

When it comes to explaining and combating social problems, the relationship between poverty and education is at the center of almost all debates. Both with a view to the causes (analytical) and with a view to reducing or preventing poverty (political-strategic), the education factor appears to be dominant: In Germany, poverty is often attributed to a lack of education and countermeasures consequently focus on educational policy measures . However, it is questionable whether the main reason for the social polarization of society really lies in growing educational inequality and cultural deficits among members of the lower classes, in other words: whether the social division of our society can be overcome through more or better education for all.

Education is undoubtedly a value in itself and - if you follow the liberal thought leader and sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf - a social civil right that all members of society are entitled to. Nevertheless, it is argued here that narrowing one's view of (failed) educational biographies of socially disadvantaged people distracts from the actual roots of the constantly deepening gap between rich and poor and leads to the individualization, psychologization or pedagogy of a socio-economic cardinal problem of social development, which can only be successfully solved by means of a Redistribution of material resources from top to bottom is possible.

In a rich country like the Federal Republic of Germany, poverty is based on excessive social inequality. In order to reduce poverty, therefore, the abundance of wealth that is concentrated in a few hands must be redistributed. However, many parties shy away from adopting a corresponding tax policy and instead point to the paramount role of education in combating poverty. However, the necessary funds are not made available. From January 1, 2017, single adults will be granted just 1.05 euros per month for education in the Hartz standard requirement, their partners even only 0.94 euros. The 2016/17 annual report by the German Council of Economic Experts entitled "Time for reforms", which recommended the introduction of a compulsory pre-school year instead of raising the wealth tax again - education yes, redistribution no - was also symptomatic. The latter, however, is an indispensable prerequisite for better equipping public schools and a more comprehensive education, especially for children from less privileged families.

Educational Deficits - Main Cause of Child Poverty?

The term "educational poverty", which sociologist Jutta Allmendiger introduced into the technical debate at the turn of the millennium, is often used to characterize the living situation of socially disadvantaged schoolchildren. In fact, poverty is not only reflected as a chronic minus on the bank account or as a yawning emptiness in the wallet, but also leads to a variety of disadvantages, for example with regard to the lack of (school) education of those affected. However, it would be a mistake to think that poverty is limited to or is primarily based on educational deficits. Rather, the relationship between poverty and schooling is considerably more complicated than it initially appears, and the term "educational poverty" is misleading, if not misleading.

The term "educational poverty" unintentionally leads to the misconception that a good school education is a guarantee for an apprenticeship or a job. Undoubtedly, educational deficits often prevent young people from gaining a foothold immediately in liberalized labor markets. The poverty of families also often means that their children do not attend secondary school or leave them again without a diploma. Poverty in the family of origin often results in educational deficits in the children affected by it. The reverse effect, on the other hand, is hardly significant: A poor or missing school leaving certificate reduces employment opportunities, but hardly has a negative effect on a person's prosperity if they are wealthy or have capital. As a rule, poverty leads to disadvantages in education for those affected, but participation in education does not lead to wealth. To put it in a nutshell: Poverty can make you stupid in the long run, but stupidity does not make you poor.

Poverty and education are interrelated, but not in the sense that the parents' educational deficits led to child poverty. Although children from socially disadvantaged families are among the greatest losers in education, their poverty is seldom based on false or missing school-leaving qualifications, because the latter are at most a trigger and amplifier, but not a cause of material hardship. However, educational deficits often lead to a solidification of poverty, because a person's chances on the labor market and professional careers are increasingly tied to qualifications that are acquired at (university) schools.

If one pretends that it is mainly a lack of educational efforts that leads to material poverty, then it is precisely those affected by poverty - in the sense of an individual failure (of the parents) - who are responsible for it. The socially determined limitation of their options for action is being disregarded, as is the structural political connections that cause poverty as a social phenomenon. The social inequality of educational success is essentially due to the inequality of material living conditions.

Just as an economically abbreviated term of poverty does not capture the phenomenon in all its complexity, just as little makes sense of a culturally abbreviated concept of poverty. The problem of poverty cannot be understood without considering the key role of material goods for the existence, reputation and esteem of a person in contemporary capitalism. It seems almost paradoxical that the paramount importance of money and its reasonably even and fair distribution to the different population groups is being questioned more and more often at a time in which, due to the advancing economization and commercialization of almost all areas of life, it is constantly of relevance for basic services and the social status of individuals wins. Those who do not have sufficient material resources cannot take paid advanced training courses to improve their personal job market opportunities and cannot take out private pension insurance to protect themselves against poverty in old age. Even a trip to the municipal water park, which has replaced the public swimming pool in many places, is out of the question for so many poor families in view of the increased admission prices.

Consequences for combating poverty: "Education for all" instead of redistribution of wealth?

Even though education is unquestionably good for individual career advancement under favorable circumstances, it fails as a societal patent recipe. Because the advantages that a higher educational qualification brings to the individual on the job market are based precisely on the fact that other competitors cannot produce the corresponding qualification. If educational policy actually succeeded in leading all disadvantaged young people to higher educational qualifications, which they would like very much, this would not necessarily mean greater career and income opportunities for everyone. On the contrary, they would possibly only compete for the few training or jobs at a higher level of education, but not with greater individual chances of success. A better education increases the competitiveness of an adolescent on the labor market, but it cannot eliminate unemployment and (child) poverty.

Although an individual can escape a precarious situation by participating in educational processes, it alone does not offer a solution for society as a whole. The existing structures of inequality are not broken up by the Federal Republic's multi-tiered education system, but reproduced and cemented. Only those who are aware of the limits of a strategy that focuses on increased educational opportunities for children from socially disadvantaged families can make a contribution to combating the risk of poverty for this group of people.

Without an improvement in educational institutions and educational opportunities for all (residential) citizens and their children, poverty cannot be successfully combated. But neither can the problem be solved by expanding the education sector. Rather, a large number of other measures are required to improve the social infrastructure (such as public childcare, health care and social security) on the one hand and to redistribute work, income and assets on the other. After all, education policy and pedagogy cannot replace a fair tax policy or a social policy that consistently combats poverty.

Participation in education is no guarantee of a secure material existence. Otherwise, not more than 10 percent of all employees in the low-wage sector would have a university degree. As important as educational and cultural offers are for children, they are of little use as a miracle weapon in the fight against poverty. It is true that the poor are often made stupid, but that does not automatically mean that the clever are rich. Education is therefore only a limited means of combating (child) poverty, because although it can alleviate the participation deficits of young people that are based on ignorance, it cannot prevent material imbalances from having an impact on their working and living conditions.

Since poor families are "uneducated" as a result of serious material deficits, some of which persist for generations, the disadvantage of children can only be reduced by eliminating the underlying lack of financial resources. If inclusion is understood not just as a (special) educational principle, but also - in a much broader sense - as a sociopolitical model, an inclusive welfare state must ensure that all citizens have equal participation in social wealth as well as in social, political and cultural Life enables to be the goal. The basis for this would have to be a concept that links different policy fields (employment, social and tax policy) without releasing educational policy from its responsibility for better development opportunities for the next generation.