Childcare deadline looms in Germany

Tomorrow is T-Day in Germany. After six years and €12 billion, August 1st is the launch date for a new law guaranteeing state-subsidised childcare for all toddlers.

Germany has fallen behind France and Scandinavia, but now federal family minister Kristina Schröder is staking her political reputation on this big-bang plan.

From tomorrow, anyone who cannot find a suitable childcare space for their under-threes within 5km of their home can sue their local authority in order to secure one. The looming deadline has sparked frenzied spending by state governments, who have been squeezing new kindergartens into old shop units and even deconsecrated churches.

“On the basis of the figures we have, we assume that almost all places will be available from August 1st,” Mrs Schröder told journalists in Berlin.

Though Germany invented modern childcare with the kindergarten, less than a fifth of German children under the age of two attend a creche or other form of childcare. The OECD average, according to 2008 figures, is around a third – with Ireland just ahead of that figure.

The low uptake in Germany is a surprise to many outsiders, considering the state offers subsidised day-care costing as little as €50 a month, depending on household income.

Too few places
The problem, most experts agree, is not the system itself, but not having enough places to go around. Progress has been made on this front in the recent years, but experts say huge gaps remain. A recent report by the German Cities Association (Städtetag) suggested that, while around 600,000 childcare places exist in Germany, almost 200,000 more are needed.

In some urban areas with greater concentrations of young children, up to 60 per cent of under-threes have no childcare facilities available nearby, the report said.

“Everyone I know has got a space for their children, but you basically have to start harassing and begging your local childcare facility once a week from the time your child is born,” said Lotte Schumann, a 35-year-old mother of three in Hamburg.

An even greater challenge than opening new kindergartens is finding staff. There is a shortage of about 25,000 carers, according to one study. This is not surprising, say unions, given that top monthly gross earnings for child-carers are around €3,500.

The scramble over the childcare initiative has exposed many interesting cracks in modern German life.

East-west divide
The first is the lingering gap, both in mentality and facilities, between east and west. Look at a map of Germany showing concentration of childcare places and you can see clearly the old East Germany emerge, a legacy of the socialist expectation that women would contribute to the economy.

Old West German social norms of stay-at-home mothers, meanwhile, translate into a lower concentration of facilities – or else half-day care.

Germany remains a country divided on childcare as on few other issues. Parallel to the trumpeted childcare guarantee law, chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is introducing a new €100 monthly payment to parents who care for their children in the home.

One camp praises it as recognition of the contribution made by stay-at-home parents, while critics call it a “stove premium” for women and a political sop to Dr Merkel’s conservative allies in Bavaria that will do little for Germany’s dwindling birthrate.

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Childcare deadline looms in Germany
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