Editor’s note: Catherine Cheney reported on German policymaking as part of the German-American Fulbright Commission’s Berlin Capital Program, which is funded by the German Foreign Office.
BERLIN -- The Betreuungsgeld, a policy that will provide a monthly allowance to parents who keep their toddlers out of public daycare programs, is at the center of an emotional debate on family politics in Germany. Approved last month and scheduled to go into effect next year, the subsidy is an attempt to make it easier for parents, in most cases women, to care for children ages one to three on their own. Critics say the law will reverse the recent progress the German government has made to encourage women to return to work after having children, calling it a state-funded return to a family structure of the past.
Anette Stein, director of the Early Childhood Education program at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, a public policy foundation based in Gütersloh, Germany, told Trend Lines the controversy over the subsidies reflects changing views of the family in Germany.
Stein said the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian wing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the original proponent of the bill, has “a traditional image of families and parents.” The traditional family is particularly important in the conservative culture of Bavaria, a southeastern state that was part of West Germany during the Cold War.
“This image has transformed during the last few years in a tremendous way,” she said, explaining that legislation such as generous subsidies for parental leave has made it easier for parents to spend time with their children while also returning to work. “But there are people in Bavaria, and especially the voters of the party that promoted this law, who are still in favor of this traditional family structure and who are afraid of what is happening with children and families,” she said.
The discourse has become so polarizing, she said, because it is no longer about the needs of families and children, but instead about whether a woman is “a good mother or a bad mother,” or a “good worker or a bad worker.”
Other countries, including Sweden, are considering these kinds of subsidies, Stein said, but nowhere else is the debate over work-life balance as emotionally charged as it is in Germany.
In a conversation with journalists, Rolf Hoffmann, executive director of the Fulbright Commission, said this is a sensitive topic in part because of the historical divides in perceptions of the family between West Germany and East Germany.
Before reunification, he said, East Germany made it possible for every child to attend kindergarten, which allowed parents to work. In West Germany, on the other hand, there was a belief in the “traditional division of labor,” with the wife at home taking care of the children and the husband at work.
“With reunification, all of this shattered,” Hoffmann said, explaining that “the old-fashioned vision of what families should look like” collided with “the experience of what you could do to provide self-fulfillment for men and women together.”
Stein said Germans also have a historical distaste for the government imposing its values upon the home stemming from World War II.
Germany should first provide better funding for childcare programs, she added, before considering these subsidies.
“We have to promote the quality and access of institutions,” she said. “Only then could we really debate this question.”
The government will have difficulty fulfilling its promise to provide daycare to every child from ages one to three by the next school year, Stein said, but the new subsidy will help provide political cover.
The rush to provide subsidies before ensuring nationwide access to quality daycare will negatively affect children from disadvantaged backgrounds and single-parent homes, Stein said, as the monthly subsidy of nearly $200 will persuade some lower-income parents to leave the workforce.
There is still a chance that the law could be reversed, Stein said, if the opposition Social Democratic Party wins next year’s general election. The law was passed last month in part because it was bundled with other social benefits.
“If you start now with the Betreuungsgeld, without enough access to daycare facilities, you really have disadvantages for those families and those children who would gain the most from these institutions and do not have access at the moment,” she said.
Photo: Kindergarten students, Auggen, Germany, June 19, 2008 (photo by Flickr user kelleys, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license).
- For Europe in Afghanistan, Long-term Commitment Despite Lack of Interests
- World Citizen: In Spain, a Turn to 'None of the Above'
- As U.S. Pivots, Britain Hedges Its Military Bets
- Russia Tries to Manage Arab Awakening From the Outside
- Diplomatic Fallout: A More Hawkish Europe Gives U.S. Second Thoughts