Family issues are high on the agenda for Germany’s politicians. With less than half a year before elections, chancellor candidates Schröder and Stoiber are rushing to prove how family friendly their party platform is.
In Germany family politics is a balancing act
Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democrats (SPD) promises to raise child support money and increase the number of state-sponsored child care centers throughout the country. Edmund Stoiber of the opposition Christian Social Union (CSU) plans to cut all child subsidies and institute a per-child state payment of 600 euro ($528) regardless of family income.
The SPD, long associated with labor politics, is in the process of reforming itself as the "family-friendly" party for Germany. Since coming into office three years ago, Schröder’s party has increased child support three times and raised the tax abatement for families to meet the rising costs of raising children.
Last week at the SPD party forum, "Families in Germany", Chancellor Schröder stressed the importance of the family for the future of Germany. "Of all the social networks, it is the family that is most important for the German people," he said.
Stoiber’s party, long the bastion of southern German conservatives and staunch traditionalism, has called for a "Marshall plan for families". The livelihood of children should not depend on social welfare, the CSU candidate said last week. Every family deserves a decent standard of living. And Stoiber, who presents himself as the loving father and grandfather, promises to be the champion of all German families.
Where’s the catch?
Both plans sound good – too good to be true, say family policy advocates. So where’s the problem? For starters, neither one of the candidates offer clear-cut plans for financing their reforms.
Whereas they both point out -- and rightly so – the inadequacies of the current family situation, neither the SPD nor the CSU and its partner party of Christian Democrats (CDU) have come out with plausible financial solutions to mend it.
Compared to other industrialized nations, Germany has a considerably low number of working mothers. Only 10 percent of managers are women with children; in the US the number is closer to 40 percent. Even former East Germany offered better conditions for families by providing widespread state-sponsored child care. Today, only five percent of all German children have a spot in a nursery school.
Family with children in pedestrian zone
Reforming family politics to enable more mothers to work and more children to grow up safe and sound is an expensive project. Edmund Stoiber’s proposal of giving every child 600 euro would equate to a 49 billion euro expense in the first year. Under the current system, the state spends 40 billion euro on child support, tax abatements and family welfare. Stoiber’s plan would therefore mean an annual difference of 9 billion euro.
Schröder’s proposal is only slightly cheaper. Raising the child support payment for every child from the current level of 154 euro to 254 euro would require an extra 1.5 billion per year. The costs of funding an expansive state-run child care system would amount to an additional six or seven billion euro per year. All in all, Schröder’s plan would mean an increase of between 7.5 and 8.5 billion euro.
It’s no wonder both parties are keeping quiet about the bottom line. At a time when the national budget is already stretched, no candidate wants to come out in favor of more spending.
Is the call to a softer more family-friendly politics sincere or just the latest phase of barn-storming populist paroles? Do the candidates really intend to improve the family situation in Germany? Or are they just aiming to increase their votes at September’s national elections by drumming up support from the crucial middle ground?
What’s clear in the family feud is that both candidates are quick to point fingers at each other and their parties.
Schröder refers to the family politics of the Kohl era as "catastrophic" and says that his conservative predecessor and the CDU were guilty of "neglect" when it came to improving the welfare of families. The current candidate for CDU/CSU will continue in the same vain, Schröder says.
Last week, the chancellor accused the opposition candidate of having a "conservative view of women" and a "reactionary understanding of gender roles". In Stoiber’s home region of southern Germany, only 1.4 percent of all children are in child care. As a result, the otherwise financially strong state of Bavaria has more stay-at-home moms than the rest of Germany.
Children walking home from school in Freiburg, Germany
Stoiber, for his part, criticizes the SPD opponent for not stopping the erosion of the traditional family unit and values. Unlike the three-time married and divorced Schröder, Stoiber presents himself to the media as a happy family man. He’s the candidate to restore meaning in family, or at least that’s what his campaign would have voters think.
The CDU/CSU also warns that the SPD’s proposal to increase child support money is only a "placebo". After taxes and inflation –both of which the SPD is made accountable for – only about 10 euro would remain from the payment, says Stoiber advisor Maria Böhmer.
Test of time
Numbers, programs, percentages and promises – each party is presenting its family policy with fanfare, but few Germans are buying into it. According to political analyst Peter Lösche, the Germans are skeptical about the whole political "rediscovery" of the family.
"The voters know the issue is only a bait to hook them," Löscher said in the daily "Express". The debate on immigration showed them that the politicians aren’t really concerned with the issues, only with obtaining and maintaining power.
Therefore, the real test for the future of the German family will not come on September 22, when the Germans go to the polls to elect their next chancellor, but some time long after that when business and society deem the issue important enough to really put weight – and financial pressure – behind the political paroles.