Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet approved a bill on Wednesday to provide parents of toddlers with an allowance for keeping their children out of state-run day care, a move that critics say would derail recent efforts to encourage German women to return to work after starting a family.
The bill, which allocates $500 million next year to create an allowance for parents who keep their 1- and 2-year-old children out of state-run day care, has been the focus of an emotional debate for months and is expected to come up before Parliament by early July. The legislation was proposed by the Bavarian wing of Ms. Merkel’s party.
But the provision has its share of opponents. “Nobody wants the child-care allowance,” opposition parties wrote in a petition put forward on Wednesday in a rare show of unity that sought to persuade lawmakers to reject the bill. “We call on the German government to reject the child-care allowance and instead invest more money in the expansion and quality of child-care centers.”
Because the legislation has been bundled with other social benefits, it is expected to pass despite the unpopularity of the child-care measure.
Germany has come a long way in recent years in making it easier to work while raising a family, stretching school opening times into the afternoon, overhauling parental leave and investing $15 million over five years to expand the number of child-care centers across the country. But it still lags behind much of the rest of Europe in providing sufficient, affordable child care for parents working outside the home. The family minister, Kristina Schröder, who last year became the first cabinet member to give birth while in office, contends that a monthly allowance of about $190 gives families the choice of how they want to care for their young children. The money can used to help pay for an au pair, nanny or privately run care center.
Natascha Kohnen, a regional lawmaker for the Social Democrats in Bavaria, who are circulating their own petition against the bill, said, “The reality is, what kind of choice does a single mother have if she needs a job to support her children but can’t work unless she has affordable child care?”
Last week, Ms. Schröder introduced a 10-point plan aimed at ensuring that the government adhered to its pledge to create 750,000 child-care slots for toddlers by 2013, insisting that Germany was on track to meet that goal.
Many experts dispute that assessment and maintain that the money earmarked for the allowance would be better spent improving the number and quality of child-care slots.
“As long as we do not have sufficient child-care slots, both in number and in quality, it is difficult to support the argument to invest in a program that takes us in the opposite direction,” Anette Stein, who researches education initiatives for the Bertelsmann Foundation, said in a telephone interview.
Among those most opposed to the allowance are young parents whom it aims to help, and who economists argue are desperately needed in the work force to keep Germany competitive.
Five years ago, Germany overhauled its parental support system, scaling back support to young mothers to 12 months from 3 years, and making fathers eligible to receive leave benefits. As a result, the number of mothers who have toddlers and work outside the home has increased to 40 percent in 2011 from 32 percent a decade ago, according to the Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.
Yet day care slots remain at a premium, especially in western Germany, where traditional family roles are more deeply rooted and infrastructure for care lags. It is not uncommon for hundreds of children to be on waiting lists for several dozen places.
“I think it is a real step backward,” said Julia Ott, mother of a first grader and 2-year-old twins, who are in day care for 35 hours each week in Cologne. She works part time but hopes to go back full time when her youngest daughters start school.
“It has nothing to do with modern family politics,” Ms. Ott said.
Axel Plünnecke, a family policy researcher at the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, estimates that 100,000 mostly lower-qualified and lower-paid workers could view the subsidy as attractive enough to stay at home for two extra years.
In addition, Mr. Plünnecke cited studies that had shown the children who benefited most from early childhood education included those from low-income families, for whom the benefit could be most attractive. In the long term, he said, the government may have to invest more in the education of these children if they are to contribute to the skilled labor force.
“From a purely economic viewpoint, this subsidy makes no sense,” Mr. Plünnecke said in a telephone interview.
Reflecting how real fears are of the negative impact that the subsidy could have on the country’s economy, leaders from Germany’s labor unions and employers’ associations, which normally spar over wage agreements, teamed up to criticize the initiative as “creating a false incentive to quit work.”
The Christian Social Union, the Bavarian wing of Ms. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, insists that it is a question of fairness.
“If we invest predominantly in day care, and not in alternatives, that would amount to a preference for day care,” Gerda Hasselfeldt, a leading member of the Christian Social Union, wrote in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Yet there is a certain lack of logic in the idea of compensating families that decide not to take advantage of infrastructure provided by the state, some economists say.
“If I build a highway,” Mr. Plünnecke said, “it doesn’t mean that the cyclists are going to get compensated.”