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Family Policies, Birthrate Falling Short

Germany's fertility rate is among Europe's lowest, despite subsidies for parents. Reasons include limited day care and high taxes.

January 19, 2003|Melissa Eddy | Associated Press Writer

FRANKFURT, Germany — The famous German social net allows German mothers -- or fathers -- to take three years off work after each child is born and have a comparable job waiting. And there's "kindergeld" -- monthly government subsidies of more than $150 per child until at least age 18.

On the face of it, the German family as an institution should be thriving.

But appearances are deceiving.

German women are overwhelmingly choosing not to have children, giving Germany one of the lowest birthrates in Europe and prompting lawmakers in Berlin to pledge $4 billion toward programs to encourage them.

They won't get any help from working mothers in their campaign. Despite Germany's long tradition of providing for its citizens, working moms and policy watchdogs complain that their conception is patriarchal -- built on the premise of a stay-at-home mom, leaving little flexibility for women with young children to return to the full-time jobs they left to have babies.

Day care is hard to find and inflexible, demanding that children arrive by 7 a.m. and be picked up by 3 p.m. Primary school finishes at noon -- leaving children with nowhere to go but home. Shops keep office hours.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, a Paris-based career coach for European women in management positions, said German policymakers should not be surprised that Germany's fertility rate has plunged over the last three decades from 2.03 to 1.34 babies per woman, only slightly above Italy's notoriously low 1.23 and well under the American average of about 2.1.

"Germany is forcing its women into that choice," Wittenberg-Cox said, adding that paying women to stay home does not translate into more children.

In his campaign for reelection, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder promised to improve life for working families and, since being returned to office last September, he has pledged billions to create 10,000 all-day schools and thousands of day-care centers so that parents can more easily work.

"We will make sure that women have a free choice between a family life and a career, that raising children will not be a burden, let alone a risk," Schroeder said in his first address to Parliament.

Petra Eberlein-Kempe, a senior vice president in financial controlling at Commerzbank, who is also the mother of a 4-year-old and a 20-month-old, understands that risk. Without her stay-at-home husband to pick up the children when the day-care center closes at noon, she said, she couldn't keep her 50-hour-a-week job.

"Any other way, it wouldn't work," she said.

Eberlein-Kempe points out that the sheer amount of organization required to combine a career with a family is enough to scare many women away.

"When they look at the costs -- the taxes, paying for day care and, quite simply, the time it takes to organize everything -- many women just decide it's cheaper and easier to stay home," she said.

But a poll by McKinsey and the German weekly Stern in 2001 showed that 71% of German mothers with children 3 and younger would like to work at least 15 hours a week, but didn't have anyone to look after their children.

Enter the government's new push to create more day-care opportunities -- which they hope will translate into more babies.

Current benefits offer mothers 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, and both parents are then allowed to take off up to three years from their jobs, with government subsidies supporting those who make less than $23,500 per year. In addition, the state pays kindergeld for each child until age 18, or 27 if they live at home while attending university.

But while these benefits sound generous, when weighed against the country's high income and social taxes -- offering little in the way of breaks for families -- together with high urban rents and heavy taxes on gasoline and heating oil, the money quickly disappears.

Statistics by the German-based Bertelsmann Foundation, which conducts research on social problems, found that there are day-care facilities for 52% of children younger than 3 in the United States and 29% of French children, but only 10% in Germany.

"The demographic factor is above all the main reason politicians are waking up to the needs of families," said Erdin Deligoez, a Greens parliamentarian who sits on the committee for family affairs.

Economists and international organizations have warned that Germany -- like Italy, where the Pope recently urged politicians to make life easier for parents -- will be unable to support its aging population at its current growth rate without an influx of migrant workers.

But many families have little faith that the new government promises will translate into real benefits for them. They point to painful new tax hikes that deplete income needed to cover the costs of rearing children.

"What is lacking is an overall concept for family politics," said Sandra Herbener, 34, an economist who is staying home to rear four children.

She insists that although the day-care issue is pressing, it is only one among many. Unless society offers more family-friendly incentives, ranging from tax breaks to more flexible shopping hours and public transportation, she said, German women will continue to opt out of motherhood.

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