As Chancellor Merkel’s centre-right coalition held torturous deliberations to hammer out contentious tax cuts last weekend, Germany’s finance minister was naturally there.
The country’s family minister, however, wasn’t at the table as Merkel’s conservatives, their Bavarian allies, and the Free Democrats agreed to implement a subsidy for families opting out of sending their children to day care known as Betreuungsgeld.
The fractious coalition has decided to introduce this hefty state entitlement with wide-ranging societal implications at a time when its coffers are empty.
Rather than building day-care centres and improving other facilities for children, the government has chosen to increase direct payments to single-earner families, which are already afforded tax breaks and subsidized health care premiums.
There is no existential reasoning for this – it’s more about the psychology of recognizing the contributions of those housewives who feel disadvantaged by state subsidies for working parents.
The Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), has become the chief lobbyist for these women, even though a growing number of conservative family policy experts have realized that broad transfer payments will not alleviate the biggest problems currently faced by German families.
The new Betreuungsgeld subsidy certainly won’t help state governments provide the guaranteed day-care spots for children in two years as mandated by law – a lack of which effectively limits the options of working parents.
Given the option of quality day care, hardly any middle-class working mothers would decide to ditch their job to stay at home with the kids for a measly €150 a month. It is more likely that families from weaker socio-economic backgrounds will go for it.
The eastern German state of Thuringia saw exactly that happen after it introduce a similar subsidy in 2006: the number of two-year-olds in day care plummeted. Less well-educated parents in particular opted to take the cash rather than send their kids to professional day-care centres, which in turn saw their budgets cut to finance the subsidy.
The number of disenfranchised children is even higher in several other German states. Day care and preschools can help children barely able to speak German, so they’re better prepared by the time they start school. The billions of euros that Betreuungsgeld will cost would be better spent on programmes helping the integration of such disadvantaged kids.
Unfortunately, there’s no strong presence at the Family Ministry to fight against Betreuungsgeld at this decisive moment for German society. Former Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen, now Labour Minister, demonstrated the potential political power of the family portfolio when allied with civic groups and the wider public interest while in office. Her young successor, Kristina Schröder, however, lacks the clout to eliminate even the most poisonous aspects of Betreuungsgeld.
The young minister’s failure to roll back the CSU’s cherished new subsidy is evidence of her dearth of experience and authority – but her appointment to the post two years ago also shows how little Chancellor Merkel values family policy.
So perhaps it’s sadly only logical that the coalition would rather allow the CSU to score points with Bavarian housewives than give as many children as possible a better lot in life.