Poverty among Students must not be normalised

Selbst die obligatorischen Nudeln können sich viele Studierende nicht mehr leisten (Foto: Unsplash)

In the wake of the energy crisis, the German government has passed a law for a one-time payment of €200 to students. However, this aid comes much too late and will not be enough. So it is high time to talk about the fact that students are losing to yet another crisis and why nobody cares.

A comment by Lara und Lasse

Students or people getting other education are often told that “learning years are not earning years”. After all, while you’re still learning it is normal to have little money and to work under precarious conditions.

If it hadn’t already, at least after the press release of the Federal Statistical Office of November 16, this saying must now seem extremely cynical to many students.

The press release shows that 37.9% of all students in Germany are at risk of poverty. Among students living alone or in shared apartments, the figure was as high as 76.1%. A person is considered at risk of poverty if he or she has less than 60% of the median income of the total population at his or her disposal. This median income was 1,251 euros per month in 2021

If these figures don’t worry you, the fact that the data is from 2021 might. At that time, inflation averaged at “only” 3.1% and peaked at 5.3% in December. By inflation, we mean that all prices in an economy are rising. The largest price increases were in energy (10.4%) and food (3.2%). Both are products that everyone relies on in their daily lives.

By 2022, things were looking much more threatening, as inflation rates were, with a few exceptions, much higher than those of the previous year, reaching their all-time high of 10.4% in October. Students, many of whom were already at risk of poverty last year, are being hit particularly hard by the worsening inflation crisis.

Relief for students comes too late

The federal government reacted to the precarious situation of prospective academics with a relief that reads like a bad joke against the background of the figures just mentioned: University students and technical students are to receive a one-time payment of 200 euros to compensate for the increased heating costs with the energy price flat rate for students.

The first problem is the lack of predictability. It is not possible to say exactly when the energy flat rate will be paid out at this point in time. On December 09, 2022, the Tagesschau reported on problems with the implementation of the plan to pay out the flat rate and that the payment will probably be delayed. Since then, there have been no new reports on whether a solution has been found for this problem (as of 04.01.2023).

At the same time, it is precisely now that haste is called for: students are already struggling with rent increases and utility bills and cannot plan firmly for the 200 euros. This state of limbo leads to immense uncertainty. Even during the Covid pandemic, students were not offered any reliable help, although many were unable to continue their jobs in the catering or retail sectors, resulting in loss of income.

What’s more, the lump sum even has to be taxed in some cases. If you earn more than 10,347 euros a year, the amount is taxable.

Measures will not be sufficient

But the problem with the energy price flat rate goes beyond the lack of planning.

You really don’t need any mathematical expertise to realize that these measures won’t be enough. Neither the increased heating costs nor the skyrocketing rents can be offset in this way.

What is needed is a fundamental improvement in the living conditions of students. In this vein, in an interview with the NDR the Secretary General of the German Student Union called for a quick and, above all, lasting improvement in the financial situation of students: “The student budget is usually sewn on the edge and the seam is now in danger of tearing, […] which is why we need an immediate increase in the BAföG rate.”

Student mental health at risk

It becomes clear where the impoverishment of many students leads: Opportunities to participate in social life are increasingly disappearing resulting in marginalisation.

Anyone who thinks this is exaggerated only needs to look back to 2020. At the height of the pandemic, aid payments to students were vanishingly small. Many did not receive them at all. Young people also suffered disproportionately from isolation during the lockdowns.

This year, the interests of students are again being fundamentally trampled on, as the case of the University of Trier shows. The latter sent students into digital teaching two weeks before the start of the Christmas vacations in order to save energy. The students were then forced to heat their own four walls all day.

Last but not least, poverty also has an impact on people’s mental health. Any kind of social participation promotes quality of life and prevents isolation. Going to the movies, having a cup of coffee or attending sports classes are the first things that poverty-stricken students miss out on and can lead to loneliness.

Too little help for students during the pandemic

Students feel that their concerns are overlooked and not taken seriously. The feeling of not being properly perceived, especially by politicians, is confirmed in an online survey by the research association “Childhood – Youth – Family in the Corona Era” at the University of Hildesheim. 60% of the young people surveyed feel that their situation and their own concerns are hardly noticed in politics.

The typical campus life has already fallen away during the pandemic and the students have felt forgotten: While there have been great opens to keep schools open, this has never been a priority at universities. As a result, many freshmen have found it hard to connect or have stayed with their parents. Meanwhile, increased energy prices make relocation almost impossible for many.

As early as 2020, Die Zeit reported that students had to abandon their studies or take on debt due to insufficient aid payments or the loss of a part-time job. This further exacerbates the trend: studying is becoming a privilege, and those who have no money and fall through the cracks at BAföG can hardly afford to study.

Although more and more people are studying, the number of people receiving BAfög has remained almost constant since 1971, reports the Tagesschau. Today, only 11% of students receive BAföG. In 1973, it was still a full 47%. One reason for this is the fear of getting into debt or having too “high” an income from their parents. This structural problem leads to the same people entering academic professions over and over again.

Poverty is not a state of nature, but a political decision!

Poverty, even during studies, must not be normalized. This topic is also causing a stir on social media. Triggered by a post from the content network Funk, a debate arose on Instagram a few days ago.

Funk published a post on Dec. 17 that was meant to be helpful to people with friend:s affected by poverty. It frames poverty as something normal. Such statements are problematic because poverty is not a state of nature and can be influenced by political decisions. Furthermore, poverty, especially among students, is not self-inflicted. A fact that is often ignored in today’s discussion about poverty.



What would really help: Sufficient financial support and relief from the state. Offering the entire BAföG rate as a subsidy for students, for example, would be a long overdue step. Students would then not have to pay back a single cent of BAföG and could complete their studies without fear of falling into debt later.

It would be just as important to better finance the student unions from state funds so that they do not have to pass on the increased purchase prices in the form of increased cafeteria prices or rent costs for student dormitories. The fact that this has not yet happened shows repeatedly that young people in particular are being criminally neglected by politicians and are thus once again becoming the losers of the crisis.

On the campus of the University of Hamburg, a group of students is trying to draw attention to this situation by repeatedly stealing food from the Blattwerk dining hall. KOPFZEILE reported on the motivations behind these lootings, and the answers are hardly surprising: the ever-increasing poverty among students. Even in the Mensa, many can barely afford a meal. Added to this is the prevailing feeling of being overlooked by politics.

It may be true that learning years aren’t earning years, but impoverishment and social exclusion due to poverty of this group is unacceptable and studying should not mean having to live at subsistence level. Politicians must make it their task to enable all students to start or continue their studies without financial hardship.