As a Cabinet minister, doctor and mother of seven, Ursula von der Leyen speaks from experience when she urges German lawmakers to make it easier to combine work and children.
The 47-year-old minister for families is leading the six-month-old German government’s effort to combat one of Europe’s lowest birthrates by overhauling a generous benefits system that still hasn’t persuaded people to have more children.
“Viewed internationally, we spend a relatively large sum of money for families, but with a much lower positive effect than other countries,” von der Leyen said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Indeed, births in Germany dropped 4 percent in 2005 from the previous year, according to figures from the Federal Statistics Agency, to around 690,000. That’s the lowest since World War II and lagging even 1946, when 922,000 babies were born even as the country lay in ruins.
Worries for the future
This is despite annual government spending on family support programs worth $103 billion, ranging from up to three years paid maternity leave to monthly subsidies of $185 per child through at least age 18. If the trend continues, by 2020 experts worry there won’t be enough people to fund the nation’s generous pension and social system, which is already undergoing cuts.
Many have noted that other countries seem to have achieved higher birthrates by focusing less on money than on ways to make it easier for parents to combine work and family. In particular, France and Sweden pay child subsidies roughly equivalent to those in Germany — but also have an extensive network of low-cost childcare centers that take babies to preschool-aged children.
In addition, France offers additional help to some families who need in-home care. The Swedes offer either moms or dads 80 percent of their salary for a total of 480 days in a parental leave.
While the French had 12.7 new babies per 1,000 residents in 2004 and the Swedes 11.2, Germany recorded only 8.5 new births — the lowest rate in Europe not counting the Vatican.
Stay-at-home dads to be rewarded
On Tuesday, German government ministers agreed to revamp support for new parents, including a clause that rewards fathers who agree to stay home. Under the new agreement, either parent will be able to take a leave from their job for up to one year and receive 67 percent of their wages, up to $2,250 per month.
Previously only women were allowed to receive subsidies for staying home during the first year of a baby’s life.
To von der Leyen, government policy has to get beyond mere financing to help people meet the practical challenges of child care and to change society’s attitudes toward children.
“The mentality that we find in Germany today is the result of various causes, including the systematic and structural discrimination that has grown for decades against people who raise children.”
Problems for mothers
Nora Austin, a 27-year-old single mother who works as a consultant, agrees. She recently returned to her hometown of Frankfurt after a year working in Dublin, Ireland.
“There, it is totally normal that a woman has children and a job,” said Austin. “And you can take kids anywhere — restaurants, pubs — and they are totally welcome. Here, you are made to almost feel guilty because you have a kid.”
She cites a myriad of problems ranging from a chronic lack of childcare that is also largely inflexible, schools that close after lunch, shops that shut their doors by 8 p.m. on weeknights and often earlier on Saturdays. On Sundays, they are all closed.
The argument is not lost on von der Leyen, who recognizes that one of the key issues facing Germany is how to create an environment that makes young people feel confident that starting a family won’t prevent them from having a career.
“Today we have the best educated generation of young men and young women who love their jobs — and want children,” von der Leyen said. “Men and women will work and will have to work. And the question, is how they will find the energy and time to have the children they want to have?”
Objective: Work-life balance
All these reforms are aimed at making it easier for young Germans to combine jobs and families, which in turn will secure the future of Germany’s cradle-to-grave social welfare system, said von der Leyen.
“They earn the wages, contribute to the pension system and raise the children who will carry our country into the next generation,” said von der Leyen. “This is really quite a feat and we as a society have to do everything we can to make this job easier on them.”
At the same time she hopes the reforms will reverse a societal view of children as social problems instead of an essential element of society.
“I welcome the current discussion, because it awakens the awareness that children bring with them values that are irreplaceable,” she said. “It is high time that we decide how we are going to live together in the future, whether there will be children or not.”