Family policy becomes new German election battleground | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 04.04.2017
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Family policy becomes new German election battleground

Germany's government parties have offered parents new bonuses ahead of September's election, including free kindergartens and buggy cash. Opposition parties are wondering: what have you been doing for four years?

Germany's coalition government began the week by making a coordinated, all-out bid for the parental vote in this September's election.

The opening salvo was fired by Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), who took to the mass-circulation weekly "Bild am Sonntag" on Sunday to announce a "strong packet of measures for a family policy offensive in Germany."

Seehofer, whose regional Bavarian party enjoys national power thanks to an age-old alliance with Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said families will be a "central issue" in the upcoming campaign.

Read: The pros and cons of Merkel's grand coalition in Germany

Though the CDU-CSU's actual election manifesto will only be finalized in the summer, proposals on the table included one-off payments for new parents to cover necessities like buggies, extra tax relief for extra children, phasing out kindergarten fees, and a reduction in social security contributions for poorer families. CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber also chimed in by floating the idea of giving parents financial help buying property.

Männer Elternzeit Deutschland (picture-alliance/dpa)

The government says it wants to encourage more dad time

Quality dad time

There's an obvious reason why the conservative half of the Germany's centrist government should want to make early inroads on this subject. Family policy is under the aegis of the popular Family Minister Manuela Schwesig, of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which is neck-and-neck in opinion polls with the CDU, and enjoys a better reputation among German voters on social policy.

Read: German social democrats eager to push same-sex marriage bill ahead of election

Indeed, it didn't take long for Schwesig to respond to the CDU's "offensive" with some of her own ideas, which she presented on Monday at SPD headquarters in Berlin. These included an extra "family benefit" of 150 euros ($160) a month for all parents of children under eight - under certain conditions.

A measure designed to better balance work and family duties between parents, the extra cash could be claimed if the father (who generally works full-time) reduces his working week to 26 - 36 hours, while the mother (who generally works part-time) increases her working week to "something close to full-time."

Read: German managerial women's quota 'working,' says Schwesig

Fathers "should be encouraged to take more time for the family, and we want to encourage mothers to become economically active," Schwesig said. The benefit would be available to single parents too, she added, before claiming that the measure would pay for itself, because getting moms into work would increase tax revenue.

Deutschland Manuela Schwesig (picture-alliance/dpa/J. Carstensen)

Schwesig's plan was criticized by family groups and the Left party

Where have you been?

The two main opposition parties were less than impressed with this sudden interest in the nation's families. "They haven't really done any of this during the four years in government," said Franziska Brantner, family policy spokeswoman for the Green party. "It's like they're now discovering there are kids in Germany."

"Last week in parliament, we voted through a bill on childcare facilities, which provides money for the next four years for 100,000 places - even though the expert commission said this represented a third of what was actually necessary - and that was last week!" Brantner told DW. "And now they're going out and talking about childcare facilities for free. They don't even have the spaces! Don't tell them it's going to be for free! It's so ridiculous."

By the same token, on Tuesday, Schwesig also announced plans to adopt children's rights into Germany's constitution - something the Green party has been advocating for 25 years, Brantner said, before adding the Greens would vote for such measures "wholeheartedly." "Come on guys, you've been in government and you are in government now - do it," she said.

Invest, don't hand out

The socialist Left party's Jörn Wunderlich was less enthusiastic. "These policies sound socially responsible, but if you look at them you see it's nothing new," the Left's family policy spokesman told DW. "Similar measures were promised at the last election. For example, it sounds very nice that you want to raise tax-free allowances for children - but it only makes sense for the people who earn enough to make it worth it. For people who earn the average wage or below, it doesn't make a difference." Instead, Wunderlich said child benefits should be raised to ensure that all children benefited equally.

Read: Study finds two million poor children in wealthy Germany

Similarly, Wunderlich doubted whether the 150 euros that Schwesig was offering parents represented a massive incentive. According to him, a better plan would be to invest public money into state child care. "What is important is creating the opportunity, by creating better child care," he said. "There is still massive demand for kindergarten places that isn't being covered. The problem is that the local authorities have to finance it - Seehofer says: we want free kindergartens, but he doesn't explain where the money will come from."

Read: Left party tries to distinguish itself with ambitious election platform

Sebastian Heimann, director of the DFV, Germany's main family interests' association, was even more scathing, suggesting that the ideas of both CDU and the SPD were actually more harmful to families - especially Schwesig's proposal: "It doesn't mean more time for children, but actually less time for children," he said. "The project is aimed at mothers and fathers who are both working normally for 80 or 90 percent of the time. It can't be the point of such measures to support double-income earners, while families with just one income are left standing in the rain financially. In fact, this isn't a family support measure, but an economic policy."

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