BERLIN, Oct. 17 (UPI) -- German politicians are debating poverty in a country where some 6.5 million people feel they are increasingly left behind in society, a new underclass that may undermine the stability of any government, observers say.
Commissioned by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a think tank with close links to the governing center-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD, the study entitled "Society in the Process of Reform" was carried out by German research institute TNS Infratest and polled some 3,000 voters on their attitudes toward social justice.
The results of the study have shocked the German political scene. Among the figures was that 8 percent of Germans -- some 6.5 million -- saw themselves as having been completely ostracized, or "left behind," in society.
One in five people in eastern Germany and one in 20 people in western Germany were said to belong to the ever-growing group of those who are left behind: People with little education, temporary, insecure jobs or no work at all, and nearly no chance of climbing the social ladder.
Leading sociologists have warned that the growing social inequality may lead to civil unrest similar to last year's riots in France, as Germany has traditionally been a country where the lower class can bank on an extensive social net to fall back into.
The study further fueled debate about Germany's new underclass, launched by SPD leader Kurt Beck in a newspaper interview.
"Germany has a growing problem. Some call it an underclass problem," he said in Sunday's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. "There are far too many people in Germany who have lost hope that they will advance in society," he said.
His conservative colleagues have blamed former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's labor market reforms for the plight of the poor.
Schroeder, despite resistance from the left wing of his party, introduced the Hartz 4 laws to spark job creation, a move that observers said brought his party closer to the center.
At the time, the conservatives -- then in fierce opposition -- claimed Hartz 4 was a step in the right direction, but didn't go far enough.
While the conservatives now criticize the former government, even inside the SPD there have surfaced angry voices against Schroeder's reforms.
Stefan Hilsberg, a high-ranking SPD lawmaker, called the Hartz 4 laws, which cut unemployment benefits to levels merely covering the most basic needs, a "life-long illusion."
"We have tried to make people believe that by challenging and funding, anyone can reach the premium job market," he told the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel.
German politicians have criticized using the term "underclass," and signaled reforms should undo the wrong facilitated by the former government.
"The term stigmatizes people and prevents the possibility of being able to reach out to them," he said. "I prefer talking about 'people with social and integration problems,'" Volker Kauder, a high-ranking Christian Democrat, told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung paper. "We have to address the problems that these people are confronted with."
What all politicians had in common, the left-leaning Tagesspiegel wrote in an editorial, was that they were unwilling to "admit to having played any role in the country's growing poverty and resignation. And that exactly is the lie."
Conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel meanwhile promised the problem would not go untackled under her leadership. She said a well-functioning educational system was key in enabling lower-class children to successfully climb the social ladder.
Heiner Geissler, a prominent conservative and former minister, however, said the problem will likely exacerbate in the coming years.
"More and more people are born into poverty, and are from the beginning in a situation where they are discriminated against," he told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. "Analphabetism will rise, so will crime rates. Our society is threatened by a lurking decay, a development that we know from the United States."