Reunification Won't Help East German Women

By , Robert J. McIntyre is an associate professor of economics at Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

REUNIFICATION of Germany will be a major setback for women of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). East German women currently benefit from a strong, interconnected web of social-welfare, education, housing, and labor-market support programs. Not so in West Germany, where such programs are either nonexistent or much weaker, and where the social-welfare structure encourages new mothers to leave the labor force. There is widespread concern among East German women that existing programs will disappear altogether upon reunification, leading to mass female unemployment.

Two examples illustrate what East German women stand to lose: First, the GDR has a comprehensive, integrated program of parenthood support unparalleled anywhere in East or West Europe. Even Sweden, noted for its social efforts for women, has weaker programs and runs an economy in which many females are either not committed to careers or work part-time.

Second, the GDR's combination of substantial income support, maternity leave, and family-allowance payments until children leave home is only the most visible part of this social-policy network. The employment guarantees are equaled in few other societies. Women receive in-grade raises and retirement credit while they're out of the work force. They are guaranteed the right to return to the same position or a comparable one. And they are encouraged to retrain to recapture lost ``qualifications'' upon their return.

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East Germany also provides virtually free quality kindergarten, preschool and after-school care for all its children. By law, child care must be provided in a family's immediate neighborhood, and until such provision is made, a single mother may remain at home at full salary. The GDR also has a comprehensive hot-lunch program and a structured after-school care program to assist working parents who can't meet their children at the end of the school day.

The popularity of these social programs was made clear the second week of February when Wolker Abend, the new GDR vice-minister of education, announced that as East and West inevitably converged, the special features of GDR life - such as the hot-lunch program and after-school care - would have to be eliminated. Within 24 hours, a group of 2,000 to 3,000 East German women, many accompanied by children, demonstrated outside the Education Ministry. Mr. Abend abruptly offered his resignation later that day.

This is not to suggest that these issues could derail the momentum for unification, but to point out the existence of social-support policies in the GDR that far exceed those in West Germany. Yet East Germans are only beginning to imagine that these benefits may be in jeopardy. People across Eastern Europe tend to assume that whatever has developed locally is the norm everywhere, while advantages found abroad would be a net gain.

Quite to the contrary, West Germany has been using fertility-support programs to push women out of the labor force as a way of containing long-term unemployment, which now amounts to 8 percent. West Germany's labor force has one of the lowest female-participation rates of any industrial nation, and that rate is now declining. The proportion of women in the East German work force is 32 percentage points higher than in West Germany.

Furthermore, little is said about the troubles faced by East Germans who move to the West. Long-term unemployment often occurs after resettlers exhaust financial and in-kind benefits. According to official statistics, over 70 percent of East Germans who migrated in the last seven months are currently unemployed.

Resettlement benefits have been provided as an inducement to migrate from East Germany ever since 1947, but their magnitude is unknown to most Western readers. They are not published or collected in any one place. To do so would make clear the extent to which these payments have been part of West Germany's systematic long-term program to destabilize the GDR. The constitutional mandate for these payments (and for immediate citizenship) has been a long-standing element in this cold-war policy written into the West German constitution under the guidance of American political scientists.

This destabilization strategy has been costly to the GDR for decades. The mass migration of GDR citizens to the West since August 1989 has shifted some of the costs of destabilizations to West Germany and has been surprisingly disruptive for West Germans. The added competition in tight housing and flat labor markets caused by the continual migration, as well as the significant direct costs of resettlement payments, have begun to prompt measures that reduce or cut off benefits to additional resettlers.

As of February, for example, a person who comes from the East must be unemployed for at least two months before he or she can collect compensation. Bonn announced in March that even reduced support payments will be cut off after July 1. This social-policy panic adds a first authentic West German note to what had been a chorus of mock concern about GDR disintegration.

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