The German birth rate is an average of just 1.37 children per womanImage: Bilderbox
September 3, 2009
The reforms overseen by Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen have been well-received. But their popularity and failure to increase the birth rate only add to the pressure to make Germany a better place for families.
Flipping through the election platform of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, German voters might come across this sentence: "We want more young people in Germany to choose to have children."
Not only does incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel's party want to create jobs and fight climate change, it also wants lots of German babies. And it's not just the CDU. The Social Democrats (SPD) also have big campaign promises to make Germany more family-friendly.
The politicians are in the business of baby promotion because Germany's generous social system depends on a steady stream of young workers, whose taxes fund the pensions of the retired and the welfare payments of the unemployed. But Germany has one of the lowest birth rates in the European Union with just 1.37 children born per woman in 2008. According to Sandra Fischer, a doctoral student researching federalism and family policy at the University of Bonn, a rate of about 2.1 is considered sustainable growth.
Merkel's family minister, Ursula von der Leyen, whose brief includes senior citizens, women and youth, has been a particularly visible cabinet member in her first term. She's pushing through significant reforms aimed at making Germany a better place for children and families and boosting the birth rate.
Big changes for little people
Most notably, she introduced a parental allowance, which began in 2007 and pays a parent who chooses to stay home 65 percent of his or her previous income for the first year after a child is born. The benefit can be extended by two months if the other parent then takes the time off, a measure meant to encourage fathers to take a more active role in child rearing.
During the second quarter of 2009 about 35,000 men took advantage of paternity leave, an increase of 29 percent over the previous year. At the same time, 166,000 women were on maternity leave, 5 percent more than the year before.
Fischer says that in these terms von der Leyen's policies were a success. And according to Familienmonitor 2009, a survey of German families published in July, 77 percent of Germans thought the parental allowance was a good reform.
Christoph Kepper, the father of a two-year-old and a six-week-old infant, told Deutsche Welle he gives the CDU and von der Leyen credit for these new policies, although he's not sure which party he'll vote for.
"I think Germany has made some progress with the parental leave and the parental allowance that they promised. And they delivered," he said. "It's a nice opportunity to stay home for a few months to take care of your child."
Kepper himself stayed home for two months with his son and plans to do the same with his new daughter. But when asked whether von der Leyen's reforms played a role in his and his wife's decision to have children, he was clear: "Not at all."
The family ministry has traditionally gone to the senior party in Germany's governing coalitions. So after the Sept. 27 elections, one of the two big parties, the CDU and the SPD, will most likely get the spot. Having just spent the last four years in a grand coalition together and pushing through significant and popular reforms means that their family policy approaches are looking quite similar.
More than just work-life balance
Despite the major reforms von der Leyen has had enacted, Germans still want more. According to Familienmonitor 2009, one in two stay-at-home moms would actually prefer to work, at least part-time. But rigid work schedules and a lack of dependable, full-time childcare make it difficult to combine family and career.
Of those asked by Familienmonitor 2009, 57 percent said that it's harder to reconcile the two in Germany than in other countries.
What families are looking for is compatibility between having a career and having kids, said Dr. Wilhelm Haumann, who led the research for Familienmonitor 2009 at the Institute for Public Opinion in Allensbach.
"Compatibility of family and career is not exactly the same as work-life balance," he explained. "It's more the possibility of bringing the two together."
Kepper, with the two young children, agreed, saying that finding a nursery school or preschool spot can be difficult. "I think a lot can be done," he said, referring to making childcare more accessible and better.
More childcare options are the order of the day. The SPD has promised to promote all-day schools, a rarity in a country where school often finishes at 1 p.m. and there are few after-school programs. The CDU has said it will increase the number of nursery school spots for children under three. Both parties take credit in their election platforms for another recent reform that entitles all children from the age of one onward a nursery school spot, beginning in 2013.
And both promise to take the program further and provide care for even more children.
Regardless of which party wins the family ministry this fall, more childcare options will definitely be on the to-do list.
"I think they will continue to expand it. It's a commitment," Fischer said. "I think they can't let it fall under the table."