The Debate over Betreuungsgeld

Elizabeth Heineman

Lisa Heineman is Associate Professor of History and Associate Professor of Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies, University of Iowa and Associate Director of the UI Center for Human Rights. She has been at the University of Iowa since 1999 and teaches courses in Germany, Europe, women, and gender. Her past research has examined gender, war, and memory in Germany; welfare states in comparative perspective (Fascist, Communist, and Democratic); and the significance of marital status for women. Out of this research came a book, What Difference Does a Husband Make: Women and Marital Status in Nazi and Postwar Germany (University of California Press, 1999) and many articles, including “The Hour of Women: Memories of Germany’s ‘Crisis Years’ and West German National Identity” American Historical Review (1996).

With her 2002 article, “Sexuality and Nazism: The Doubly Unspeakable?” (Journal of the History of Sexuality), she began to work more intensely on the history of sexuality. In 2011, she published Before Porn was Legal: The Erotica Empire of Beate Uhse (University of Chicago Press) and The History of Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: From the Ancient World to the Era of Human Rights (editor, University of Pennsylvania Press).

Professor Heineman received her PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1993. She is the 2010 recipient of the AICGS/DAAD Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in German and European Studies.

Fifty-nine percent of Germans opposed it. It was offensive to much of the CDU, including the Ministers of Family and Labor. The Free Democrats recoiled at the idea.  Yet on 9 November 2012, the Bundestag approved Betreuungsgeld: monthly payments to parents of children aged one and two who decline the subsidized child-care spot to which they will be legally entitled as of August 2013. The Bundesrat followed suit a few weeks later, despite the efforts of SPD-governed provinces to block the measure. Only the CSU, which had made the bill’s passage a top priority, rejoiced.

Viewed narrowly, the passage of Betreuungsgeld demonstrated the power of a small but determined party in a coalition government; it is a bit harder to determine its meaning for German family policy more generally. Considering Germany’s belated commitment to making adequate numbers of child care places available, does Betreuungsgeld simply represent the dying gasp of a deeply conservative strand of German family policy, one that has sought to maintain a housewife role for women since the early days of the Federal Republic? Or does it indicate the deeper persistence of this vision: are we now entering an era in which continuing state support for the “housewife marriage” will at best coexist with efforts to make family and employment more compatible, and at worst undercut such efforts?

Betreuungsgeld and Child Care: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

The impetus for introducing Betreuungsgeld was the state’s commitment to a dramatic expansion of child care facilities. In 2006, a Grand Coalition government promised to offer subsidized child care beginning in 2013 for all children aged one and above whose parents desired it. The measure bore the stamp of then family minister (now Minister of Labor and Social Affairs) Ursula von der Leyen of the CDU, whose biography personified the ideal of making motherhood and full-time employment compatible.[1] Indeed, the remarkable feminization of the CDU leadership in recent years has been accompanied by a modification of that party’s traditional hostility to maternal employment – to the discomfort of more conservative members of the CSU. Thus, the groundwork was set for then-CSU Chief Edmund Stoiber to introduce his proposal for Betreuungsgeld to the coalition’s program in 2007, characterizing Betreuungsgeld and child care as two sides of the same coin. After allowing the issue to remain dormant for several years, the CSU convinced a reluctant CDU and FDP to work on a draft in late 2011; the draft was the subject of strenuous controversy through the summer and fall of 2012 before its passage late that same year.

As the debate on Betreuungsgeld heated up in 2012, it was clear that the required number of child care spots would not be available on schedule. The Statistisches Bundesamt predicated a shortfall of some 220,000 spaces, based upon predictions showing that 39 percent of parents would want to place their children in child care. Opponents of Betreuungsgeld argued that the money would be better spent expanding child care facilities: a year’s worth of Betreuungsgeld payments would fund either 101,000 existing child care spots for a year or the creation of 44,000 new spots.[2]

The challenges to creating additional child care spots and facilities, however, were not due entirely to lack of funds at the federal level. Scuffling between the federal and state governments about states’ responsibility to report on their use of federal funds delayed release of additional federal money, and some of the most economically challenged districts were faced with the task of achieving the greatest expansion of their child care infrastructure.[3] Training a new cohort of child care workers would take time, yet the competent authorities did not act proactively to recruit and train new staff following the announcement in 2006 of the 2013 deadline. Estimates of the shortfall in trained staff, including licensed in-home babysitters, range from 14,000 to 42,000.[4] Furthermore, states were unprepared to build and renovate child care facilities. Provinces with the greatest need, primarily in western Germany, had the lowest levels of unemployment and thus fewer potential child care trainees; in many cases they lacked adequate facilities for training new personnel. Meanwhile, eastern provinces, with their higher unemployment and therefore greater pool for recruitment, already have a satisfactory child care infrastructure. As the deadline approaches, some cities and provinces are petitioning for interim measures such as permission to guarantee spots initially only to children aged two, and authorities predict lawsuits when municipalities and counties are unable to meet their obligations to parents in August 2013.

The introduction of Betreuungsgeld thus cannot be blamed for the predicted shortfall in child care spots. Nonetheless, there is something jarring about a program which, as SPD chief Peer Steinbrück put it, pays people not to take advantage of a public service. After all, the state does not financially reward citizens who decline to attend university, visit state-subsidized opera, or tap the full range of healthcare services available to them. Proponents of Betreuungsgeld describe it as a matter of choice—parents should be able to decide for themselves whether to care for their toddlers themselves or to hire others to assist with this task. Opponents consider this to be a blatantly disingenuous argument, as no one is forced to put their children in day care or to hire a nanny, but hundreds of thousands of mothers are forced by a shortage of facilities to cease or cut back on paid employment.

Furthermore, Betreuungsgeld will not make full-time motherhood affordable for mothers who would otherwise be forced by financial contingency to work outside the home.[5] Elterngeld, paid for the first twelve to fourteen months of parental leave, is paid on a sliding scale of €300 to €1800 per month, depending on the salary relinquished in order to provide full-time child care. It is a meaningful replacement for lost income, although it, too, fails to compensate for lost opportunities for promotion and other consequences of interrupted employment. Betreuungsgeld’s payments of €100 (as of August 2013) or €150 (as of August 2014) do not make it possible to sacrifice earned income unless there is another means of support—such as a securely-employed husband. Furthermore, the link between Betreuungsgeld and the expansion of subsidized child care means that a family member need not actually provide child care in order to be eligible for payments. Rather, families who receive Betreuungsgeld may not tap publicly-subsidized services. Fully employed parents who place their child in a private facility or pay a nanny from their own pockets may collect Betreuungsgeld.

In other words, hopes (or fears) that Betreuungsgeld will shape parents’ behavior are probably exaggerated. It is unlikely to slow the expansion of subsidized child care or depress the number of parents who wish to take advantage of it, nor will it lead parents (mothers, really) who have secure work and promising professional prospects to stay home with their children. Families most likely to tap Betreuungsgeld are those who would in any case keep their children home because the mother’s earning power compares poorly to the price of child care or for reason of cultural preference, including many so-called “socially weak” and immigrant families. Critics of Betreuungsgeld have expressed special concern about children from those milieus, holding that they stand to benefit especially from child care outside the home since they often enter school disadvantaged in terms of German language skills. Yet absent better employment prospects for their mothers, Betreuungsgeld will not reduce the numbers of children from such families who attend day care; it will simply provide a modest stipend for the child-rearing work their mothers already perform. Only in cases of women with part-time, poorly-paid work might Betreuungsgeld tip the balance against maternal employment. Given women’s employment patterns, this is not an insignificant group, and it indeed includes many in “socially weak” and immigrant families.

In other words, Betreuungsgeld ignites controversy not only because of its likely effect on family decision-making. It evokes passion because it represents the victory of a fundamentally conservative attitude about women’s role and the ideal environment for young children—an attitude at odds with the preferences of most of the population and all parties other than the CSU, and which perpetuates women’s economic disadvantage.

Impossibly High Expectations for Mothers? Betreuungsgeld and Germany’s Population Question

The Betreuungsgeld debate, like other measures regarding family policy, touch on other domestic issues, especially Germany’s birth rate. Most Germans of the political classes agree on the necessity of raising Germany’s birth rate, which at 1.36 births per women is among the lowest in Europe and the world. The low birth rate threatens the balance between the employed, tax-paying cohort who fund government programs and the growing population of senior citizens who draw on government benefits. Racial fears also factor into the birth rate discussion, as the birth rate of Germany’s large immigrant population is substantially higher than that of “ethnic” Germans. These racial fears bubble beneath the surface and occasionally into the open, as in the notorious “Kinder statt Inder” (“children instead of Indians”) slogan opposing the 2000 drive for “green cards” for highly-skilled workers. (These did not offer permanent residence, but rather an expedited five-year working visa.) Fears of differential birth rates according to social class are also present, as demonstrated by the media’s relentless tracking of upward and downward ticks in the fertility rates of women with advanced degrees.[6] Rarely thematized in this context, even in environmentally-conscious Germany, are the disproportionate environmental costs of first-world births—that is, the possible benefits of a low birth rate. Given the general agreement on the desirability of a higher birth rate, it is worth considering the broader discussion on reasons—and possible remedies—for Germany’s low birth rate in connection with Betreuungsgeld.

According to 2009 data, the only European countries with a replacement birthrate (2.1) are Turkey, Iceland, and Ireland.[7]  Yet even in the context of the sub-replacement levels of European fertility, Germany’s is particularly low: only a handful of eastern and southern European states with markedly weaker economies have lower birth rates. States with a similar standard of living to Germany’s—notably France and the Scandinavian states—have much higher birth rates. Both long-standing differences in public policy and cultural norms appear to explain the discrepancy, though disentangling the two presents a challenge.

The differences in public policy are clear. Germany grants generous tax benefits for married couples[8] and direct payments to families with children (mainly as support for stay-at-home mothers). In so doing, it spends more public money per child than most European states.  In contrast, France and Scandinavia have focused on making work and family more compatible by creating a dense network of child care facilities and family-friendly workplace policies.[9] In de-emphasizing marriage and promoting child care outside the home, France and Scandinavia resemble the former German Democratic Republic. Even today, women in the “new” federal states, who have much easier access to child care, have strikingly lower rates of childlessness than women in the old states. Only 14 percent of eastern women versus 25 percent of western women the 1970-74 cohort, which came of child-bearing age after reunification, are childless. Today, with the youngest of this group 39, future births will be too few to narrow the gap significantly. Women from the territories of the former GDR also have significantly higher rates of non-marital births: 58.3 percent compared to 27 percent.[10] West German women thus are more often childless in part for logistical reasons: it is harder for them to combine motherhood with employment, and the challenge is particularly daunting for unwed women.

Yet a recent report from the Bundesinstitut für Bevölkerungsforschung (Federal Institute for Population Research) is notable in also paying attention to culture. The report reveals, for example, that the French and Belgians are considerably more likely than Germans to feel that fathers and mothers are equally qualified to parent young children, with obvious implications for couples’ willingness to consider having the father as primary care-giver, or at least to dividing child care more equitably.  And attitudes, like infrastructure, continue to divide Germans: 63 percent of western Germans, compared to only 36 percent of eastern Germans, feel that small children suffer if their mothers work outside the home. The report suggests that western German women face impossibly high expectations regarding motherhood: anything less than full-time motherhood will harm the children. Furthermore, these expectations do not just come from external pressure; rather, they are also internalized: West German women and men share similar attitudes. At the same time, women with promising professional prospects might be reluctant to risk their careers for a long “baby pause,” since they have often invested heavily in those careers and gain personal satisfaction from their professional lives. Highly-educated women are especially likely not to have children. The report concludes: “Such a situation, in which neither the traditional housewife model nor employment with children appears attractive, results in decisions against having children.”[11]

It is worth re-considering the debate on Betreuungsgeld in light of the overlapping logistical and cultural constraints to maternal employment. Logistically, Betreuungsgeld’s financial benefits are unnecessary to allow women who cannot get child care anyway to “choose” full-time motherhood, and they are inadequate to enable women who need a proper income to make the same choice. Betreuungsgeld’s cultural implications, however, are at least as troubling to its opponents as its economic impact. By financially rewarding full-time motherhood at a time when hundreds of thousands of women still find it logistically impossible to combine employment with child-rearing, Betreuungsgeld perpetuates the symbolic privileging of full-time mothers, who are almost invariably married. For those concerned with the declining birth rate, this runs counter to evidence that lower cultural (and not just economic) barriers to non-marital and employed motherhood correspond to higher birth rates. As it happens, the same factors expand women’s choices. Depending on one’s perspective, that might be icing on the cake, or it might be an even more worthy goal than promoting births in an overpopulated world.

Dr. Elizabeth Heineman is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa and a Fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies.  She is also a Non-Resident Fellow at AGI.


[1] Von der Leyen first pursued medicine, and then embarked on her political career, while raising seven children—needless to say, with the help of a nanny and day care centers. Current family minister Kristine Schröder has pushed the envelope as well by having a baby while in office.

[2] Anita Fichtl, Tlmo Hener, Helmut Rainer, “Betreuungsgeld,” ifo Schnelldienst 65/21 (2012), 38-44.

[3]  Costs were to be shared between Bund (federation), Land (state), and Gemeinde (township or county), with the last ultimately responsible for licensing facilities and staff.

[4] Viktoria Grossmann, “Arbeitslose sollen Erzieher werden,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, 10 July 2012; Ulrike Heidenreich, “Die Furcht der Kommunen vor den Eltern,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, 7 November 2012.


[5] Christina Boll, Nora Reich, “Das Betreuungsgeld – eine kritische ökonomische Analyse,” Wirtschaftsdienst (00436275) Vol. 92, Issue 2 (2012), 121-128.

[6] “Akademikerin und kinderlos,”, 13 October 2005, <>;

“Akademikerinnen entscheiden sich öfter für Kinder,” Zeit-Online, 19 September 2012 <>.

[8] The policy of giving generous tax benefits to married couples with or without children is known as Ehegattensplittung.

[9] Tax benefits for married couples, with or without children, cost the German state four times as much as Elterngeld. Martin Werding, Reiner Klinghotz, Jürgen Liminski, Hans-Peter Kiös; Joachim Pfeiffer, “Familienpolitik in Deutschland: Trotz hoher Ausgaben nur wenig erfolgreich?” ifo Schnelldienst, Vol. 65, Issue 15 (2012),. 3-21.

[10] One-quarter of West German, but only 14% of East German women born 1970-74 remain childless. In 2010, 58.3% of East German but only 27% of West German births were non-marital. Martin Bujard, Jürgen Dorbritz, Evelyn Grünheid, Stephan Kühntopf, Detlef Lück, Robert Naderi, Jasmin Passet, Kerstin Ruckdeschel, “(Keine) Lust auf Kinder?” Bundesinstitut für Bevölkerungsforschung (2012).

[11] Ibid., quote p. 54.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.