Opinion: Learning to Think Outside the Box | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 22.01.2006
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Opinion: Learning to Think Outside the Box

Once dismissed as "nonsense" by former Chancellor Schröder, family policies have now climbed to the top of Germany's political agenda. The debate is headed in the right direction, says DW-WORLD's Uta Thofern.

A family with two kids is becoming a rarity in Germany

A family with two kids is becoming a rarity in Germany

German Family Affairs Minister Ursula von der Leyen has been in the eye of a storm ever since her radical proposals for making Germany more family-friendly and encouraging women to have babies. The minister plans to "stay the course" amid the raging storm and she can be relied on to get her way.

After all, the emergence of the debate on family-friendliness itself is a victory. That's because despite the posturing of the Social Democrats and the conservative Christian Social Union in the current government coalition, the topic has managed to permanently bag a top spot in the country's political priorities.

Bildgalerie Minister Ursula van der Leyen Familie

German Family Affairs Minister Von der Leyen has stirred up a storm

This positive development naturally isn't just thanks to von der Leyen's tenacity and appetitive for a good fight. The realization that promoting families is simply a necessity trickled into the awareness of both neo-liberal market-friendly politicians and libertarian proponents of an individualistic social model ever since alarm bells began ringing with regularity over the state of the country's pension coffers.

Competitio n for the best ideas

The damning Pisa study on Germany's education standards also contributed towards strengthening the process. Promoting children also means boosting education. And it's common knowledge that a highly industrialized country can't afford to ignore its young talent.

What has added charm to the ongoing debate is the departure from the traditional family policy reflexes of the two main parties. Now, finally there's a competition for the best ideas, fueled by the row between the two parties. The bitter fight over the details of a family-friendly package aimed at boosting the birth rate is proof that there has been a significant shift in thinking that has driven the traditionalists to take up arms.

In any case, the ruling coalition decided this week to make it easier for working mothers to continue being part of the labor market. Measures include tax breaks on child care as well as on new computers, seen as essential for remaining employed.

Kindergarten in Deutschland

If von der Leyen has her way, Germany will hopefully see more kids in the future

It's far removed from the traditional family image of both the conservatives as well the classical distribution policies of the Social Democrats because families with a higher income stand to profit more in terms of absolute figures. That also applies to child benefits decoupled from income. In other words, it's a salary compensation which rises with higher income.

Thus the family policies of the federal government have for the first time shaken off the social- and symbolic politics attached to it and have emerged on the level of Realpolitik, where results, not good intentions, matter.

Narrow-mi n ded thi n ki n g does n 't help

Family Affairs Minister von der Leyen has realistically and pragmatically realized why so many well-educated women have decided not to have children. It's not about having 10 or 20 euros more in child benefits for all, but rather about possibilities to reconcile jobs and family without permanently endangering a hard-earned lifestyle.

For a successful university graduate, the bleak prospects of a badly-paid part-time job that perhaps allows her to coordinate it with the opening hours of a local kindergarten, is simply discouraging. Privately-financed full-day schools at least offer a chance not to miss getting back to work again even if the tax breaks only cushions the costs, and doesn't do away with them.

The new proposals of the family affairs package are innovative and correct, as is von der Leyen's bold idea to urge local councils to pay their own contribution. Did someone say free kindergartens aren't financially viable? Maybe we need to change our priorities, define things anew. Narrow-minded thinking and taboos don't help in any case.

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