German town promotes child care, sees a baby boom

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

On a map, it's just a dot on the outskirts of Münster. But in a country struggling to counter an alarmingly low birthrate, Laer is a statistical wonder.

The town of 6,700 has no movie house, no supermarket, no McDonald's. But with 13.5 babies born per 1,000 inhabitants, compared with 8.4 nationwide, it does have something of a baby boom. And in Germany, where the low birthrate has already closed down dozens of schools and put the welfare system at risk, Laer is emerging as a model incubator for pro-growth population policy.

Laer boasts day care organized by paretns, five all-day kindergartens, and a primary school open till 4:30 p.m. More important, locals say, it has an attitude about parenting that makes it easier for moms and dads to work and raise children. With a family policy centered on enabling mothers to work, Laer is moving closer to much of Europe, bucking a deeply entrenched German tradition that mothers should be child-rearers first and foremost.

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It is this different mind-set that attracted Meike Ritter, a stewardess for Lufthansa who is often gone days in a row. "Laer was the only place that could guarantee us that our children could be looked after the entire day," Guido Ritter, Meike's husband, said by phone from Laer. "So we said, 'We have to build ourselves a house here.' " Mr. Ritter was offered a job teaching at the University of Muenster, necessitating the move.

Now other communities, eager to encourage couples to have more children, are following Laer's lead.

"Laer grasped the signs of the time," says Kerstin Schmidt, a researcher at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Gütersloh, who helps German towns develop children-friendly work policies. "[It has] created an environment where children and families are welcome. It's smart economically; that's how you attract qualified people."

Public attitudes about - and government support for - working mothers differ widely across Europe.

In France and Scandinavia, the government takes care of children from the get-go through subsidized child care, universal preschool, and all-day schools. In France, which gives huge tax breaks for each child, mothers have few qualms about going back to work within weeks of giving birth. In Sweden, where child care is paid for by the government, it's understood that most women will return to work.

But Germans, along with Italians and Spaniards, have traditionally viewed child- rearing as a private, not a public, responsibility. Indeed, child care in Germany is practically nonexistent in government policies, which offer parents monthly cash allowances and give one-income couples more-favorable tax benefits, tending to reinforce the idea of mothers as caretakers.

In western Germany, just 4 of every 100 children attend day care (though in the former East Germany, that number is 35 percent). In France, 29 percent do; in Denmark, the figure reaches 64 percent.

"Sending your child [to day care in order] to work is seen as something that weakens the family rather than strengthens it," says Gisela Erler, head of Familenservice, a child care consultant based in Berlin. "Women," she says, "feel that they have to choose between family and career."

But women here are steadily rejecting this traditional attitude. Economic uncertainty, later marriages, and a desire for a different lifestyle have changed German women's views about having children. Because of this, over the past 20 years, Germany's birthrate declined rapidly. Today, the country has one of the lowest birthrates in the world - just 1.4 children per woman.

That's particularly true of educated women. Women outnumber men in German universities, and today more than half of German women in academia are childless. "The more qualified, the fewer children [women have]," reports a new study by the Economic Research Institute in Cologne.

"In Germany, the idea that it's possible to combine family life and a career is rejected by society as a whole," argues Barbara Vinken, author of "The German Mother." German society, she says, is increasingly split into two camps: those who have children, and those who don't. "It's a society in which a growing segment isn't reproducing anymore."

In 30 years, experts warn, half of Germans will be over 64. That would mean too few taxpayers to sustain its social welfare system. "This could be the death knell for the German welfare state," says Nicole Huelskamp of the German Economic Institute. "We need qualified workers for tomorrow."

But that, says Ms. Ehler, "only works by developing policies that make it possible to reconcile work and families. Not doing anything is suicidal policy."

Evidence suggests that women work more and have more children in countries like France and Sweden with strong child care infrastructure and all-day schools. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, just 16 percent of German mothers with children under 6 work. In France, the figure is 40 percent; in Sweden, it's 50 percent.

Some critics insist that good family policy means giving more money to mothers so they can stay home. But Ms. Huelskamp says the national discussion is shifting. This year, the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder made child care policies a priority. It committed billions of dollars for communities to build child care and all-day schools. Hundreds of towns have established "Family Alliances," where businesses, politicians, and parents discuss how to make it easier to balance family and work life.

But it's at the grass roots, in places like Laer, that real change is taking place. Mayor Hans-Jurgen Schimke saw long ago that German family policy needed a new impulse. "Germany spends a lot of money on families, but that has no effect," said Mr. Schimke by phone. "We need less transfer of cash and more infrastructure for the family."

He did so, starting 10 years ago with people like Anita Ursell. Ms. Ursell spearheaded a parents' initiative that now takes children under 3. And when her daughter reached school age, she helped set up an afternoon program for the town's primary school. Skepticism in the village ran deep at first. "The feeling was, to be a good mother you have to stay home," she recalls.

Meike Ritter, the stewardess, remembers the reluctance. Now her daughter is part of a growing number of children enrolled in the primary school's afternoon program. "Acceptance is gaining ground," she says.

What works in Laer can also work elsewhere, argues Gisela Erler, a former researcher on family issues who helps firms provide child care to their employees. "Every firm that has good child care facilities produces children immediately."

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