Child Poverty in Germany: Conceptual Aspects and Core Findings

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Elizabeth Fernandez, Anat Zeira, Tiziano Vecchiato and Cinzia Canali (eds.)Theoretical and Empirical Insights into Child and Family PovertyChildren’s Well-Being: Indicators and Research1010.1007/978-3-319-17506-5_8

8. Child Poverty in Germany: Conceptual Aspects and Core Findings

Sabine Andresen , Susann Fegter , Klaus Hurrelmann , Monika Pupeter  and Ulrich Schneekloth 

Fachbereich Erziehungswissenschaften, Institut für Sozialpädagogik und Erwachsenenbildung, Goethe-Universität, Campus Westend – PEG, Grüneburgplatz 1, 60323 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Faculty of Humanities, Institute of Educational Sciences, Technical University Berlin, Sekr. MAR 2-6, Marchstraße 23, 10587 Berlin, Germany

Hertie School of Governance, Berlin, Germany

TNS Deutschland GmbH, TNS Infratest Sozialforschung, Landsberger Straße 284, 80687 Munich, Germany



Sabine Andresen (Corresponding author)


Susann Fegter


Klaus Hurrelmann


Monika Pupeter


Ulrich Schneekloth

Child povertyChild well-beingWorld vision surveyChildren’s perspective

8.1 Framework of the Survey “Children in Germany 2013”

8.1.1 The Concept of Child Wellbeing

The World Vision Child Surveys have just one basic philosophy: to give children in Germany a voice in their own experiences and perspectives. These surveys view children as the experts on the world they live in: on their feelings, opinions, and experiences. The First World Vision Child Survey in 2007 presented and substantiated this theoretical and methodological approach in some detail (Andresen and Hurrelmann 2007). One of the findings emphasized in 2007 has had a notable impact both in Germany and abroad: the gaps the study revealed in what we know about middle childhood, that is, children between the ages of 6 and 11 years. The World Vision Child Surveys have contributed to closing these gaps. The third Survey is based on a representative sample of 2,500 children from 6 to 11 years and a qualitative sample of 12 children from the younger age of 6 and 7 years and the 10- and 11 year olds. As in the past two studies in 2007 and 2010, the third study addresses the concept of well-being. In our research we are interested in finding out about not only the subjective appraisals of our respondents but also their specific social framing conditions.

Generally, well-being is conceived as a multidimensional concept (Minkkinen 2013). This means that it is composed of several dimensions such as material resources, education, health, and relationships. Whereas the dimensions define and systematically frame the concept of well-being as a whole, the single indicators assigned to each dimension serve to specify and measure well-being. One major advance has been the intensive work on determining the role of the important dimension of subjective well-being and how it should be measured. This has also drawn on established psychological research on, for example, the “quality of life.” There are now many studies addressing the assessment of subjective well-being. The UNICEF studies also work with this dimension, and they have analyzed it in depth in their latest Report Card 11 (2013). It uses an index to assess subjective well-being as broadly as possible. The index covers overall life satisfaction, close relationships with parents and peers, general well-being at school, and subjective health reports. In the near future, there will certainly be a need for further studies, including international comparisons, in order to further clarify the state of subjective well-being in children (Bradshaw et al. 2013).

In this context, we should also mention the qualitative studies on the subjective ideas of children, because we also drew on these in our surveys, in which we combine qualitative and quantitative methods. One outstanding example is the research carried out in Australia by Fattore et al. (2012). This research team asked children to report which areas of life they considered to be most important for well-being. They identified three areas: self, agency, and security. Self refers essentially to the children’s self-esteem, that is, their appraisal of themselves as good and valuable personalities. Agency assesses how far children feel that they have control over their own lives and the self-efficacy of their actions. Finally, security describes their feeling of being safe and in good hands in their relationships with their parents and other adults while nonetheless having sufficient scope when it comes to doing what they want to do themselves.

When conceiving child well-being in 2013, we have not only extended the two earlier studies but also integrated the national and international discussion sketched above. Because satisfaction can be a rather vague and everyday term in German, we asked the children to tell us how satisfied they were with every single different life domain in turn. The following dimensions form the concept of well-being in our study:

  • Care from one parent/both parents measured in terms of the amount of time they devote to their children

  • Freedoms in daily life measured in terms of how satisfied children are with the freedoms their parents grant them

  • Recognition and codetermination measured in terms of who, in their experience, respects their opinion and to what extent they are involved in making everyday decisions

  • General satisfaction with institutions measured in terms of satisfaction with school and with day-care provisions

  • Leisure measured in terms of satisfaction with leisure-time opportunities

  • Friendships with other children measured in terms of satisfaction with the circle of friends

  • Subjective well-being measured in terms of overall satisfaction with life

As reported in the previous World Vision Child Studies, the majority of children in our survey reported being very satisfied in each of the life domains. However, this exceptionally high level of satisfaction might possibly be due to the way we surveyed the children, suggesting a need to reconsider our methods. Another possibility is that children simply accept the position of adults in the power hierarchy, and are quick to express their satisfaction for this reason alone. In that case, we need to take a more critical look at the theoretical approach in childhood studies.

8.1.2 Concepts and Measurements of Poverty from an International Perspective

What is well-being like for children living in poverty? Research on child well-being is increasingly addressing this issue. It needs to clarify how strongly poverty and social disadvantage impact on well-being, what can be done to counter this, and how child poverty needs to be defined and measured. There have been major new international studies in this field along with systematic analyses of how child poverty should be measured and evaluated. Nonetheless, we still know very little about the experiences of the children themselves. Up to now, studies on how children in poverty themselves see their world are very rare in both national and international childhood research. However, such studies are essential if we are to understand which strategies children use to counter precarious life states, how they themselves perceive their situation, and what phenomena they have to deal with in their daily lives.

The second World Vision Survey in 2010 addressed perceptions and appraisals of poverty in individual child portraits. However, none of the children we interviewed in 2010 were living in poverty themselves; and the same applies to the children in the third Survey. In the 2010 interviews, we gave children photographs to look at. These depicted typical scenarios of relatively poor, relatively affluent, and very affluent living conditions. On the basis of the children’s responses to these photographs in 2010, we were able to show that most children were quite capable of classifying “being poor.” Some referred to families they knew or children at their school whom they perceived to be disadvantaged. We noticed that when discussing this topic, children preferred to position themselves and their own families as being located in the middle between poor and rich, and they generally associated wealth with the need to be socially responsible.

For children, responsibility seems to be an important topic in the context of poverty. It also plays an important role in the few studies carried out with children who actually are poor. For example, poor children in Germany know exactly what the things they desire cost, but they frequently do not ask their parents for them. They know the prices and they know how much money per month their family has at its disposal. Poor children also adopt responsibility for their parents when, for example, they look after younger siblings and thereby try to ease the burdens on their mothers. Or they adopt responsibility for the emotional well-being of their parents by worrying about them (Andresen et al. 2013). There is a great need to find out about the daily lives of children living in poverty, because adults such as childcare workers or teachers need to be made aware of the precarious living conditions of these children in every location in which they interact with them.

In recent times, several international studies have made major contributions to our understanding of child poverty. The main issues here are whether there is something specific in childhood that shapes the experience of poverty in a different way to that in adulthood; whether one can determine a childhood-specific deprivation (e.g., Main and Pople 2011); and how experiencing poverty in early childhood impacts on educational processes during the further course of development (Stamm and Viehhauser 2009). For example, research on social indicators systematically analyses how early childhood poverty impacts on adult economic well-being, and which effects can be measured on, for example, labour-market success.

We draw on all these studies in our own work and we should be aware of their impact on child oriented studies.

One discussion centres on the fundamental question of how to measure poverty in adults, youths, and children and how to interpret statistical data. One established measure of poverty—also used in childhood studies—is oriented toward median income. In the European Union (EU), anybody earning less than 60 % of the median disposable income in a given nation is considered to be at risk of poverty. Having less than 50 % of median income at one’s disposal is viewed as severe poverty; less than 40 %, as very severe poverty. Report Card 10 published by UNICEF (2012) under the title Measuring child poverty, has had a major impact on research. It assesses child poverty with a deprivation index and contrasts this index with findings based on the relative poverty concept using the median disposable household income. The approach is in line with the efforts to establish a composite index of well-being. On the one hand, this means that it assumes child poverty can be assessed in relation to child development and needs independently from the comparative wealth of a society, but, on the other hand, that it still has to be related to a nation’s median income.

What goes into this deprivation index? It assesses whether a child has appropriate and at least partially new clothing; all-weather shoes; regular daily meals including fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and meat (or a vegetarian equivalent); access to books; regular leisure activities in the sense of non-formal education; outdoor leisure equipment such as a bicycle or roller skates. However, the index also includes the opportunity to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays and the opportunity to sometimes invite friends home. Because these are aspects that also characterize children’s lives in Germany, we also include some of them in our study.

If two or more of the above indicators that are considered to be relevant for an average child’s life, for what we could call “normal childhood,” are lacking, then a child’s situation is considered to be deprived. Based on these findings, the international UNICEF research team has classified the European nations into four groups:

  • The most northern nations in Europe along with the Netherlands with low child deprivation rates

  • Germany, France, Spain, and Great Britain together with eight smaller nations that form a group with a deprivation rate between 11 and 20 %

  • A group of new member states including Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland together with Italy and Greece with a deprivation rate of about 25 %

  • Three nations—Portugal, Romania, and Bulgaria—with the highest deprivation rate