Is there a way out of fate

Klaus Wicher (Ed.): Poverty in old age. Fate with no way out?

Klaus Wicher (Ed.): Poverty in old age. Fate with no way out? What to expect if nothing is changed. VSA-Verlag (Hamburg) 2017. 196 pages. ISBN 978-3-89965-759-3. D: 16.80 EUR, A: 17.30 EUR.
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The increasing number of elderly people affected by poverty in Germany is worrying. The pension reforms on the one hand, but also the deregulation of the German labor market in the course of the Hartz IV reforms have contributed significantly to the fact that the pension entitlements of older people are no longer sufficient for a life without poverty in old age. The book is dedicated to the phenomenon of old-age poverty in Germany in a large number of articles, analyzes the background and causes and offers solutions to avoid the problem in the future.


The Publisher Klaus Wicher is the first state chairman of the Sozialverband Deutschland e.V. (SoVD) -Landesverband Hamburg and a member of the federal board of SoVD. He has a degree in business administration and a degree in business administration.


The book is divided into three sections:

  1. The first part is devoted to the analysis and investigation of the causes of the phenomenon of old-age poverty,
  2. the second part deals with the risk groups and
  3. the third part shows proposed solutions for politics.

The German National Library offers an insight into the complete table of contents.

To I Time is of the essence

In his contribution differentiates Christoph Butterwegge three levels of the phenomenon of old-age poverty: an institutional, a discursive and a structural or material level. The first level concerns the institutional structure of the pension insurance in Germany. Here he identifies a paradigm shift that began as early as the 1990s and in the course of which a “market-driven old-age insurance” replaced the previously collectively organized old-age insurance (p. 13). The core of the pension reforms was the lowering of employer contributions and the maintenance of the competitiveness of German companies, whereby a neoliberal location logic was given preference over the principle of safeguarding living standards in old age. The second level aims at the social discourse; Here, under the guise of the demographic discourse, there were shifts in the ideas of justice - away from need, balance and solidarity as guiding principles and towards performance, exchange and intergenerational justice. The luxury pensioner was hyped up as the enemy of the champions for intergenerational justice. On the third, the structural-material level, there are the consequences of poverty for affected older people. Here locates Butterwegge generally a decreasing appreciation of the elderly, since on the one hand poverty in old age is on the rise, but politically nothing is opposed to it. In the activating welfare state, older people appear superfluous because they can no longer even be activated (pp. 26-7). In view of the consequences of old-age poverty, however, that is shameful. For the author, these are especially degrading for older people and could therefore also be regarded as “a form of structural violence” with regard to the constitutionally anchored right to human dignity (p. 27). It is therefore the task of politics to reduce poverty in old age and to prevent its shameful consequences. For this, the further development of the statutory pension insurance (GRV) is necessary to a solidarity citizen and employment insurance including "needs-based, poverty-proof and repression-free basic security". (P. 27).

Takes a similar line Joachim Rock with his contribution to the risk of poverty in old age, whereby he does, however, record the basic performance of the GRV. Although the reforms of recent decades aimed at establishing a second, company pillar and a third private pillar of pension insurance, half of all male and more than two thirds of all female pensioners only receive benefits from the GRV (p. 35). It is therefore clear that the latter must be the starting point for improving the situation of poor pensioners who are at risk of poverty, even though the GRV alone cannot combat poverty in old age. It is important to start at an early stage by promoting good work, focusing on a high wage level and recognizing fair substitute periods for training and family care (p. 42-3).

The chapter also contains an analysis of the Federal Social Minister's pension concept Andrea Nahles, as well as the political demands for the elimination and avoidance of old-age poverty by two members of the Hamburg parliament from the DIE LINKE party

To II Who is particularly at risk

The second part deals with the risk groups who are particularly affected by poverty in old age or who will be in the future. The contribution of Katja Karger explains why women are particularly at risk of poverty in old age. The reasons are to be found in their increased exposure to fragmentation, switching, employment breaks and low-wage employment (see p. 71). Sobering is the finding that the increased participation in education of women does not have an impact on professional careers and thus on wages and pensions. The reason for this is the widespread norm of female gainful employment as additional income to household income, which is essentially fed by the man as breadwinner. The female additional earner model has a disadvantageous effect on the amount of pensions. The gender pension gap is currently 43% in western Germany and only 12% in eastern Germany, where the gap is much lower than in the west due to higher and longer female labor force participation and a more equal distribution of income between the sexes (p. 77).

In addition to women, low-wage earners represent another risk group for poverty in old age. The contribution of Ursula Engelen-Kefer is dedicated to the poverty trap of mini jobs. The Hartz IV reforms, which were characterized by far-reaching deregulation of the labor market, led to an increase in precarious forms of employment. Those who barely earn enough in their working life to make ends meet rarely have enough cash to make private provisions and, in addition, pay little or no contributions to the GRV. The “spread of the mini-job unculture” (p. 81) in the course of the German Hartz IV reforms was also criticized by the European Commission, which emphasizes the negative consequences of employment that is not subject to social insurance contributions for retirement age. The good compatibility of mini-jobs with the female additional-earning model in Germany has fatal consequences for the individually acquired pension entitlements, especially for women (p. 82).

The third larger risk group includes pensioners with reduced earning capacity, who make up a fifth of all pensioners. The article by Christoph Ehlscheid and Dirk Neumann. Reduced earning capacity is usually the result of health restrictions, for which mental illnesses are increasingly on the rise as the cause (2000 less than 25%, 2015 already 45%, p. 91). Almost all disability pensioners (2015: 96.5%) have to accept deductions when they retire, which are on average around 10%. Even before they retire, they usually have long periods of sick leave and unemployment behind them, which also have a negative effect on the future amount of pension payments. In addition, political reforms have significantly reduced the already low average pensions of this group from EUR 875 per month in 2000 to EUR 702 in 2015 (p. 97).

Empirical findings from the everyday life of pensioners affected by poverty in Hamburg are presented in a contribution by Ingrid Breckner and Simon Güntner presents and rounds off the second part of the book. In doing so, it is worked out how the shortage structures the everyday life of pensioners, how they develop creative ways of dealing with the situation due to the various poverty and / or health-related restrictions and stresses in order to maintain social relationships and pursue cultural as well as political activities .

To III A fate with no way out? Not at all

The last part is devoted to measures that combat poverty in old age and ideally prevent it from occurring in the first place. These include reforms in the GRV on the one hand and labor market reforms on the other. The latter must aim to make gainful employment subject to social security contributions as comprehensively as possible and to raise low wages so that they enable a good livelihood during one's working life. On the one hand, the former have to increase the pension level (again) to a value of at least 50% in order to be able to meet the principle of safeguarding living standards again. In addition, more compensation elements are to be provided, which are particularly effective in risk groups and in risky situations in which no or only small contributions are made to the pension insurance. As the last, most comprehensive measure to create a sustainable, solidarity and thus also poverty-proof pension system, it is proposed to merge the different pension insurance systems (civil servants, politicians, self-employed, etc.) into a common pension system in order to put future pensions on a broad, secure basis and to ensure the backing of as many as possible for the creation and maintenance of pensions that ensure living standards.

Discussion and conclusion

This edited volume deals with a topic that fortunately has entered the political debate in recent years. Rising poverty in old age is already noticeable now, but it will only really have an impact in the coming decades. Because “[t] he pension is the mirror of working life.” (P. 137) Here the labor market reforms of the past decades have led to an increase in precarious working conditions, including, above all, low-wage jobs, mini-jobs not subject to social insurance contributions, part-time work and temporary jobs high probability will be poverty in old age.

Antonio Brettschneider and Ute bracket In their book "(Life) Paths in Old Age Poverty", published in 2016, they impressively demonstrated that old-age poverty is not an individual, but a structural problem (see the review). This book is based on this knowledge, but it goes further and makes suggestions for combating poverty in old age. Last but not least, some of the authors are either involved in politics themselves, the majority in any case in basic social policy work.

The contributions paint a sobering picture of the consequences of the pension reforms of the past decades. They show how quickly it went to perforate a functioning system of old-age insurance for a broad masses and thus gradually undermine trust in its functioning. At the same time, the first improvements that were made in 2014 in the GRV system for future relatives also give new courage to the fact that a vehement campaign against poverty in old age ultimately pays off.

This edited volume can also be seen as a contribution to the debate about poverty in old age, which is noticeably gaining momentum, and represents a good starting point for interested readers who want to deal with this topic apart from ideological trench warfare. At the same time, the lack of content-related controversy is a - albeit minor - weak point of the book. Opposing positions can often be read in the media when it comes to the sustainability of the pension system. To deal more intensively with these positions would have rounded off the volume in terms of the breadth of social discussions on the topic.

Review by
Laura Sturzeis
Socio-economist and program coordinator of the master's degree in socio-economics at the Vienna University of Economics and Business
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Suggested citation
Laura Sturzeis. Review of 09/24/2018 to: Klaus Wicher (Ed.): Old age poverty. Fate with no way out? What to expect if nothing is changed. VSA-Verlag (Hamburg) 2017. ISBN 978-3-89965-759-3. In: socialnet reviews, ISSN 2190-9245,, date of access May 19, 2021.

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