What is this thing called Betreuungsgeld?

Still worth somethingThe Federal Government of Germany decided to introduce a monthly payment of 150 euros called 'Betreuungsgeld' (literally 'money with which to look after someone'). This is a childcare supplement for parents whose children aged 3 and under are not in a state-subsidised nursery. From the beginning of 2013, a spot in just such a nursery will become a legal entitlement for all children. This policy was decided back in 2005 by what was called the Grand Coalition of the CDU/CSU and SPD.

At the moment, a very emotional public debate is taking place on the topic. The governing coalition, especially the CSU in Bavaria, points out that all parents should be free to choose for themselves whether their children stay home or take advantage of the state-run nursery. The opposition parties point out that the legal entitlement for such a nursery cannot be reached next year. Therefore, the money for the "Betreuungsgeld" should be managed by one of the state-supervised nurseries or by the parents themselves.

Beyond this specific case, there is also a fundamental socio-political question. It is a matter of whether care for children under the age of 3 should be managed by the state-supervised nurseries or by the parents themselves. The opposition parties (SPD and the Greens) prefer the former, while the CDU, CSU and FDP, who have agreed only to go along with their coalition, have come out in support of the latter. Bavarian Minister President Seehofer has even threatened to dissolve the coalition when it comes to Betreuungsgeld.

Arguments in support of Betreuungsgeld
Those who favour the Betreuungsgeld focus on the fact that the majority of people, if they had the possibility to do so, would like to raise their children at home. There is a general consensus in society that parents should stay at home during the first year of the child's life. Here in Germany, parents get 'Elterngeld' (67% of the last income maximum 1,800 Euro/month for 12 months and two more months if the both parents use it) and that children 3 years and older should go to the Kindergarten. The Betreuungsgeld should close the gap between 1 and 3 years, and should give parents a choice. It´s not necessary to quit one's job. It can also be used for other forms of care, such as for that of a nanny or private nursery. For example, if the parents of a young child are originally from the British Commonwealth and they want the child to go to an English-language nursery, this is not subsidised by the government. The Betreuungsgeld would theoretically be able to be used for such an alternative nursery. 

Arguments against Betreuungsgeld
Facing the demographic change and changes in alimony law make it necessary that both parents have to work. In bigger cities like Munich, people can just not afford to relinquish a second income. Another point is that there could be educational advantages to a child attending a nursery from a young age. Not just for learning reasons, but also for early socialisation. In addition to ideological questions, there are also financial concerns. The proposed Betreuungsgeld would add up to EUR1.2 billion. The benefit to the individual family, especially in times of high deficits, would be too little to justify the expense.

Yet another culture clash
The entire issue is part of cultural clash that pits conservatives on one side and liberals and 'leftists' on the other. It is also important not to forget the historic dimension to this debate. The nursery system that has been proposed was very common in the former GDR (German Democratic Republic), and continues to be the norm in present day eastern Germany.

Many more conservative-minded people, especially in West Germany, see the state-run nursery as a symbol of a socialist 'assault on civic values'. On the other hand, the change in German divorce law weakens this more traditional position especially that of women not working, because the woman is now obliged to earn her own income. Alimony is only awarded to mothers with small children. Once the children reach an age when they are going to school, it it expected that the mother returns to her career that she presumably had before having children.

In some very crucial ways, Germany is a modern and forward-thinking society. It would be too easy to simply dismiss this yearning for mothers (and sometimes fathers) to stay home with their very young children as regressive. Those who insist that state-run nurseries should not be compulsory deserve at least a fair opportunity to have their voices heard.

One of the most difficult aspects of a federal system that attempts to make laws governing nearly 82 million people is that sometimes one size does not, in fact, fit all. A spot in a nursery for a child in Munich is most likely the ideal situation for that child with two working parents. Meanwhile, in rural areas, where there are not enough state-run nurseries to begin with, a child might truly be better off staying at home. The Betreuungsgeld, no matter how small the amount might seem at first, would unquestionably help the family in the latter category.

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