The Real Stakes of Today's Child-Care Debates in the U.S. and Germany

Recent debates in both countries highlight how tough it is to talk about raising children without also talking about class and the number of parents.

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German children play at a child-care center. AP.

State-assisted child-care and parenting planning is that great liberal dream that Europe has made real but the U.S. hasn't. Or that's the perception, anyway. But a German initiative to boost these efforts highlights one of the major political challenges: to implement a certain child-rearing policy often means taking or implying a certain position on how best to raise a family.

The German state already spends plenty of money on benefits for parental leave as part of a program called "Elterngeld." The administration under chancellor Angela Merkel has also guaranteed each child a place in a daycare center starting in 2013 -- as in the U.S., daycare shortages are a common problem.

But Merkel, a member of the Christian Democratic Union, has also promised her party's conservative ally, the Christian Social Union, a child-care subsidy -- called "Betreuungsgeld." The Betreuungsgeld gives extra money to families that don't send their child to daycare, an attempt to make it easier for women to stay at home and care for their children themselves if they want to. 

This has turned into a political problem, and not just because it's more government spending at a time when cash is tight. To some critics, the Betreuungsgeld plan looks like a state-subsidized return to the 1950s, incentivizing a traditional family structure with a stay-at-home mom over a two-earner household.

But the class-based and socioeconomic implications are driving the harshest criticism. As one writer pointed out in Der Tagesspiegel last summer (translation), the proposed subsidy of €150 a month isn't going to do much to incentivize wealthy or middle-class mothers, who earn significantly more than that at their jobs. It might, however, be a powerful incentive for lower-class mothers who earn a lesser rate and thus would suffer less of a pay-cut for leaving work and taking the subsidy.

The Betreuungsgeld also has an interesting interaction with unemployment benefits: the two can't be added together. This makes sense, but has some unpleasant implications. Here's a recent set of examples from an op-ed in Die Zeit by Katharine Schuler:

A business manager's wife raising her one- or two-year-old child at home will in the future receive 150 euros for that from the state. A single mother on unemployment benefits gets this sum anyway, so she's removed from the policy. In fact, she also doesn't have a single cent left in her wallet.
Another example: a woman who earns so much that she can afford a private nanny can, according to the plans thus far, collect the Betreuungsgeld, although she's still going to her well-paid job. A woman who can't find a daycare spot and also can't afford private child-care, and thus is on unemployment benefits, won't get anything from the Betreuungsgeld.

The German debate might remind you of the uproar involving Mitt Romney's wife, Ann Romney, and whether it's disrespectful for stay-at-home mothers to call her out-of-touch because she's "never worked a day in her life," as Hilary Rosen put it. The really interesting discussion is the one that's emerged in the backlash. For example, Katha Pollitt's pointed out in The Nation that there is a conflict between forcing the poor to work in order to receive welfare benefits and arguing, as Romney and others do, for valuing stay-at-home mothers. "We talk about employment or staying home as a matter of choice, which obscures what it takes to make that choice: money and a mate," Pollitt wrote, adding that it's an inherently gendered evaluation. "The work is valuable if the woman is valuable, and what determines her value is whether a man has found her so and how much money he has." In other words, if we're talking about a poor single mother, that isn't work we want either psychologically or economically recognized.

Germany's Betreuungsgeld supporters are presenting the policy as a way of recognizing the work done by stay-at-home mothers. In this way, Germany's debate shows that merely respecting women's choices and recognizing that child-care is hard work doesn't necessarily make the class divide go away. Betreuungsgeld, from its very stipulations, starts looking like a state-sponsored pat on the back for wealthy and married mothers, since 150 euros a month isn't enough for a single mother to support her family. Whether in German policy or American politics, when you talk about child-care policy, you're also talking about class and single- versus two-parent families, whether you want to be or not.