There has always been social inequality in terms of incomes, wealth, education and social participation, which we define as the ability to participate in community life. This inequality is due to factors such as social and ethnic background or religious affiliation. While such differences declined for many years in Germany, they have increased again in the past two decades. Income distribution data show that the poverty rate has risen continuously since 1991 and that the group known as the “long-term poor“ is also growing. Poverty is closely associated with a lower educational level: children from families of low socioeconomic status or from families with poor educational qualifications likewise tend to achieve lower educational qualifications. In other words, from birth they have poorer chances of participating in society. Easier access to education and better vocational qualifications will reduce this social inequality.
Previous attempts to achieve this have had too little effect, however. Cooperation between thedifferent educational institutions themselves and with child and youth welfare services must therefore be improved, and their remit must be extended to take parents and families into consideration.
Furthermore, political decision-makers must to a greater extent allocate staff and funding to those areas with the greatest needs.
People of migrant origin often have a lower socioeconomic status and experience discrimination. This is not only a problem for those affected. Where entire groups are disadvantaged and discriminated against, this serves to divide society even more. Consequently, problems build up in certain neighbourhoods, and conflicts arise. These need to be countered at the local level. For this to be achieved, two things are needed: first, the will of everyone concerned to change something. And second, local decision-makers must create structures to bring about long-term social integration and must promote the benefits of living together in a diverse society.
Besides social integration, integration into the employment market is also a challenge. It is evident time and again that it is not only newly arrived migrants but also second-, third- or fourth-generation migrants living in Germany who have fewer opportunities to access the employment market and be promoted to higher positions – despite in some cases having the same educational qualifications as Germans who are not of migrant origin.
This growing social inequality poses a threat to social cohesion. Such cohesion encompasses various aspects, including personal experiences, a person’s own commitment to others, an individual sense of belonging, and expectations of a positive future. Cohesion is a key expression of an intact community that is based on solidarity – and thus of a functioning democratic society.
Studies show that broad swathes of the population must accept diversity if social cohesion is to be preserved. Exchange and dialogue between different groups allow each of the groups to gain deeper insights into the respective realities of the other’s lives. As a result, people are able to dismantle their prejudices and mutual trust is strengthened. The engagement of civil society actors can play a central role in this.
It is also necessary in structural terms to achieve greater acceptance of or a different approach to diversity and to reduce disadvantage and discrimination. This applies especially to people who work in a sector of particular relevance to social participation and social cohesion – such as health or education, or the justice system and law enforcement. Participation and cohesion are only possible long-term if everyone is comfortable with diversity and people are no longer discriminated against, for example on account of their ethnic, cultural or social origins.
We work closely together with politicians, government, business and civil society to bring about changes in society. The foundation for this is a network of such actors that is based on trust.