Six years of maternity benefits? Maybe in Austria

An opposition party gains support with a proposal to pay moms who stay

The sight of politicians snuggling babies is nothing new, but in the runup to Austria's parliamentary elections, "family values" and child care have become important issues in a campaign that critics say is marked by sexism and racism.

At the heart of the controversy is the far-right Freedom Party, which has put initiatives for extended maternity leave and government funding for women who stay home to care for their children at the center of its platform.

For a first child, a family would receive monthly "child-care checks" for the first six years, and half payments for a second child.

Katherina Schermann has a six-year-old son, Jakob, and a job working with handicapped children. "I think the child-care checks are not as great as they sound," she says. "Something else would have to be cut to finance it, like other aid for families. And in my opinion it is paying mothers to not work, and the possibilities for going back are minimized."

But other Austrians seem to like the idea. Once a fringe group best known for the praise its leader, Joerg Haider, had for Hitler's employment policies, the Freedom Party looks set to win the second biggest block of votes on Oct. 3 and join the federal government for the first time.

Race an issue

The populist party is also calling for a total halt to immigration and tight restrictions on political asylum. Its "pro-family" proposals are in line with this stance: Mr. Haider has demanded that payments to mothers who stay home be available only to native Austrians.

Christian Koeck, deputy chairman of the Liberal Forum, an opposition party, and a professor of Health Policy and Management at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., says it's part of an effort to increase Austria's low birth rate. "There is this idea that we need to encourage families to have children, which is stupid because studies have proven that money is not going to make people have more children."

The sudden prominence of family values and anti-immigration issues came as something of a surprise. Austria, the 10th richest country in the world, enjoys a high standard of living: The government already provides health care and funds child-care facilities and unemployment, at 4.3 percent, is the third-lowest in the European Union.

Still pro-family advocates, primarily the Freedom Party, have lambasted the government for failing to provide adequate social support and for forcing women to hand their children over to day-care centers and nannies so that they can earn a living. "What we are seeing is a conservative backlash, and family and women are the areas where it is played out," says Professor Koeck.

Ultraconservatism is certainly not the image for which Austria strives. With the center-left Social Democrats in power for much of the past 50 years, the Alpine republic has long aspired to the Scandinavian ideal of high social standards maintained by a big state through high taxation.

Austria rates second after Luxembourg in state spending on families, according to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and maternity leave is generous even by European standards.

Women in Austria are allowed 18 months leave, during which time a new mother can receive 5,565 schillings (about $415) per month from the government. Her employer then is required to hire her back for four weeks in either the same job or one of similar standing, but then can choose to keep her or let her go.

Men in Austria generally do not play an active role in raising children. Fathers are allowed six months leave in addition to the mother's 18 months, for which a man gets the same amount - $415 per month. However, he has to take the full six months or nothing at all.

Austria lags far behind its neighbors in gender equality. It has the second-lowest rate of female employment in Europe after Portugal. Koeck, the opposition politician, notes, "My wife is Norwegian, and she says that when she hears about the debate in Austria, she thinks of what happened 25 to 30 years ago in Norway" regarding women in the workplace.

A backward step?

The ruling Social Democrats and opposition parties the Liberal Forum and the Greens say the proposals would be impossible to finance and would force women to stay home.

Studies in Austria have shown that after two years of maternity leave, 70 percent of women return to jobs, but after four years, the figure drops to 55 percent. If mothers stay home until a child's sixth year, the possibilities for reentering the business world are drastically lower.

Even for non-mothers, finding employment could become more difficult, as companies may hesitate to hire women who might someday have children.

Women's-rights advocates in Austria say the country has failed to learn from the experiences of its EU neighbors. In France, politicians are calling for a revamp of existing regulations, such as extended parental leave. A recent Education Ministry study found that initiatives aimed at improving family life have resulted in lower salaries, higher unemployment, and limited access to senior posts for women.

Says Koeck, "The child-care checks would tie women to the stove and lower the female employment rate."

However, the Freedom Party denies it is attempting to force women to stay home, as they are not required to accept payments. Elisabeth Frank, in charge of the party's family initiative, says the proposal simply gives women more options.

"Every woman should have the choice," she says. "The choice to either stay at home and raise her children or go back to work. One in 3 Austrian women says she wants to have a child, but only every sixth is doing so. Obviously there are economic factors."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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