A Place For Everyone: Germany Promises Daycare for all Parents

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The daycare situation is particularly dire in western states like Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia, where in urban areas there are three infants for each available daycare spot. Eastern regions are less affected, partly because state child care was already the norm in East Germany, where the idea of working women was part of the model of socialist society. The infrastructure remained in place after reunification.

Meanwhile, there is widespread consensus, also in the West, that no German mother should have to stay at home looking after her children if she would rather work. In 1992, the government decided that children from the age of three should have the legal right to daycare, with the initiative expanded further in 2008 to include toddlers over 12 months.

Though the initiative to expand the country's daycare infrastructure is costing the German government some €12 billion ($16 billion), worryingly little emphasis is being placed on the actual quality of teaching and the working conditions for educators.

Childless Germany

The lack of child care provision is a permanent component of the German political agenda, mainly because of the country's extremely low birth rate. One government in Berlin after the other has relentlessly tried to reverse the downward spiral, with the legal right to daycare only one of myriad policies aimed at encouraging potential parents.

Germany spends some €200 billion ($270 billion) on promoting children and families each year and yet its birth rate, at 1.39 per woman aged 15 to 49, remains among the lowest in Europe. Though many experts doubt the effectiveness of many of the country's family policies, the current government is hoping that a combination of parent-friendly initiatives can begin to tackle the problem of "Schrumpfnation Deutschland" (shrinking Germany). Chancellor Angela Merkel has also pursued a broader approach intended to create stronger links between the family and the workplace.

Early on in her tenure, Merkel instituted parental leave benefits that are widely considered some of the most generous in Europe. Under the program, parents can receive up to 65 percent of their monthly salary over a period of up to 14 months.

More recently, the chancellor put the expansion of all-day schools back on the agenda. German primary schools finish earlier than elsewhere in Europe -- sometimes as early as 11 a.m. -- which makes it harder for mothers in particular to combine work and family.

The government is hoping that it can also make establishing families more attractive with its new child care pledge -- and there is in fact evidence the push could actually help. The researchers responsible for a report commissioned by the Family Ministry and completed earlier this year into the costs and benefits of the country's family policy, claim there is empirical evidence of a correlation between the availability of preschool places and birthrate. In certain rural districts of western Germany, they found that an increase in the number of daycare spots for children by 10 percent led to an increase in the birth rate to 3.5 percent from 2.4 percent within two years. With additional reporting by SPIEGEL Staff.

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