Child benefit plan sparks tantrums in Germany

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BERLIN – German lawmaker Dorothee Baer plans to go back to work eight weeks after the birth of her third child at the end of the minimum maternity leave, as she did for her first two children.

But that has not stopped the 34-year-old conservative vociferously speaking out in favor of a proposed new benefit system which, she says, would help parents raise their children according to their own values and circumstances.

The hot-button payment would see parents who do not send their under-three-year-olds to a state-sponsored nursery receive 100 euros ($132) a month from next year, increasing to 150 euros from 2014.

“We want equal opportunities and complete freedom of choice. Because, as a state, we are currently subsidising every nursery place with 1,000 euros, we give the impression that this is the preferred model,” she told AFP.

“I don’t think this is how it should be. Families have very different ways of organizing childcare and we should support every one of them, not just one,” she said.

The center-right government is divided over the proposal by Baer’s Christian Social Union (CSU), a coalition partner, and has sparked heated debate in Germany, which even has a word – Rabenmutter – for a bad mother.

At a time when Germany is demanding euro-saving austerity measures and budgetary rigour from its European partners, the proposal would cost around 1.2 billion euros per year, according to the Spiegel news weekly.

Opponents deride the proposed benefit, dubbed “Herdpraemie”, or literally “oven bonus” suggesting a reward for mothers to stay home and cook for their offspring, as misguided and out-dated.

They argue it could lead to more children being stuck in front of the TV, or tempt foreign parents to keep their children at home when they would especially benefit from learning German early at nursery.

Mum-of-five Maya Ammouri from Berlin said she would not claim the benefit, preferring to send her children to nursery early for the stimulus they cannot always get at home with a busy parent.

“I find it stupid that they are spending money on this. There’s something wrong, they should really put the money into the nurseries,” the 42-year-old who runs a restaurant said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has backed the payment, citing the need for fairness, but some of her political allies remain unconvinced.

“There’s great resistance (in Merkel’s own CDU party) because it goes against current modern positions on education and working women,” Nils Diederich, a political scientist at the Otto Suhr Institute, said.

“It’s very reactionary,” he said, pointing to 2013 elections in the predominantly Roman Catholic southern state of Bavaria where the CSU is based.

Concerned by its rapidly ageing population, Germany has been trying since 2005 to lift its low birth rate with paid parental leave in a child’s first year and improved childcare facilities.

But education expert Anette Stein, of the Bertelsmann Foundation, said studies showed that financial advantages played no part in people deciding to have children.

“And in any case, 150 euros a month is too little to raise a child,” she said.

Dieter Hundt, president of the Organization of German Employers’ Associations, said it was a “wrong step” for education, employment and financial policy which will hinder a mother’s quick return to the job market.

According to a recent poll, 60 percent of Germans agree.

But Baer said she had never received so much positive feedback acknowledging that it was a “very emotional” topic.

“So, whatever you say, there will always be a woman that feels as if she was criticized for the decision she took,” she added.

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