The Baby Dilemma

By Matthias Knobloch on Email

The birth rate in the United States is higher than in many European countries. Paid maternity leave is not guaranteed by US law and unlike other countries, the government generally does not support families just because they have children. Many mothers have to go back to work shortly after they give birth to their baby. This begs the question: why do Americans have more babies than Germans?

Statistically, a U.S. mother gives birth to 2.1 babies in her lifetime, according to a 2009 study of the World Bank. A German mother, however, has an average of 1.4 babies. The United States is the only industrialized country that does not guarantee paid maternity leave. The Family and Maternity Leave Act from 1993 requires big companies to grant maternity leave for a two month maximum. Unpaid leave is of course also an option. Child raising benefits or children allowances for the middle class paid for by the government do not exist. Childcare for infants and toddlers can be more expensive than rent for a 2 bedroom apartment in the Chicago Wicker Park neighborhood. So, why the difference?

Germany’s Government is struggling to increase the number of newly born babies in it’s country. The Germans are getting older which has significant negative economic impacts – including to the social welfare system. The economy is noticing the lack of skilled labor. This serious shortage could become a significant threat to Germany’s Economy.

To confront this, Germany’s government is pulling every string in order to get Germans to produce more children. And – as a matter of fact – these strings are very powerful: Every citizen and resident is entitled to receive 184EUR/264 USD Kindergeld (children allowance) per child, 190EUR/ 273 USD if one has up to three children and 215EUR/309 USD for every child beyond three. This money is paid to families regardless of their social position.

Significant tax breaks for families with children are also a bonus of becoming a mother or father. German law guarantees paid maternity or paternity leave. As a matter of fact, mothers are not allowed to work for at least 8 weeks after giving birth and are guaranteed a full paycheck during this period. The mother then can decide whether or not she wants to work part-time or full-time at her job. She also has the option to stay home for a maximum amount of twelve months after giving birth. The society pays a certain percentage of her income up to a maximum of 1,800 EUR per month. Did I mention that her employer has to hire her again after her maternity leave?  Even if it’s one year later, the employer is obligated to honor the original contract.

As this evidence shows, affording parenthood in Germany is easier than in the States. So why is it that Americans are having more children than Germans? Are Americans less scared of the future? Do they like children better than the Germans across the pond?

The sociologist Günter Burkart sees the main reason in cultural differences. The Germans are safety thinkers. They take many things into consideration before making a decision. Meanwhile folks between the Atlantic and Pacific, Mexico and Canada are less terrified in regards to their life’s plan. “It just happens” illustrates Günter Burkart. He also says that U.S. Society often is more religious than in Germany or Europe. He thinks that Americans see children primarily as an investment rather than a loss in wealth.

Burkart goes one step farther and argues that having children helps social positioning; that many successful female managers in big US companies have children. Furthermore, American women are used to the work-life constraints implicit to motherhood.  Evidence of this is the fact that 60% of mothers with children younger than three are working, and they don’t even complain about conditions. This would be unimaginable in Germany – well, at least in the west part of Germany.

Before Reunification, West German’s stereotypical family consisted of children, a housewife, and a father who went to work. Meanwhile, families in East Germany typically had both parents working and their children would spend their weekdays in childcare centers and kindergartens.  The belief was that children did not suffer by being under the care of someone other than their parents—an idea that is still studied.

My parents sent me to childcare when I was three months old and I turned out fine, right? The family policies in the former GDR were a little different compared to the policies in the West Part of Germany. Besides monetary stimulus packages for young families, the GDR also guaranteed a spot for every infant and toddler in a childcare center. For this reason, the east part of Germany still has more childcare places than the west to this day. In the nineties, many women in the former West Germany complained that there weren’t enough childcare centers with vacant spots for their infants and toddlers. They wanted to be able to work, have a successful career, and have children.

In 2013 a new law will come into effect that guarantees a spot in a childcare center for every newly born child in Germany. As always, we will have to see if this policy spurs the increase in birth rate the government is hoping for!

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Matthias Knobloch