When Michaela Ludwig arrives to pick up her son Paul at day care, it takes her about 15 minutes to convince her 3 year old to leave his hiding spot. He’s inside the wooden tree house where he’s busy playing pirates with his good friend Toni.
Ludwig says Paul often isn’t ready to go home when she gets to the day care center or kita as it’s known in Germany, where he spends seven hours a day Monday through Friday.
Ludwig works in public relations and she’s one of many parents in Hamburg, Germany, who is taking advantage of national legislation that went into effect last year, guaranteeing every child in Germany, from the age of 12 months, a slot in subsidized day care.
While I was in Germany on a short fellowship recently, I decided to look into how the new subsidies are playing out, though the U.S. is far from any such national program.
Under the German law, parents have the right to take legal action if they can’t find a place for their child. The legislation is part of a comprehensive set of policy changes in recent years aimed at addressing the needs of working families and getting more German women back into the workforce after they have children. These include things like parental leave, which is now up to 14 months. German women are among the most underemployed in Northern Europe. Germany also has Europe’s lowest share of families where both parents work full-time, according to the OECD.
“Nowadays here it’s easy to find a good kindergarten for a one year old. It wasn’t like that before. Now it’s possible after one year to go back to work. I think in places like Hamburg they support us very much. It’s different on the countryside,” says Ludwig, who adds that she doesn’t have any family in Hamburg to help care for her son. She depends on Paul’s kita for her child care needs.
How it works in Hamburg
The city of Hamburg went beyond the federal mandate. Since August, the city has covered the total cost for five hours a day of day care per child and six hours a day for children with special needs, says Marcel Schweitzer, a spokesman for the Behörde für Arbeit, Soziales, Familie und Integration (The Hamburg Ministry of Labour, Family and Integration). Hamburg also covers the cost of a warm meal each day for all kids in a kita. If families need more than five hours, they have to pay for it and the cost is determined based on a sliding scale, depending on a family’s income.
Hamburg is the first city in the country to offer such a comprehensive plan, says Schweitzer. “It’s a political decision of the government of Hamburg because we believe that everyone has the right to reconcile family and career and you have to give everyone the same chance, ” he says.
Hamburg’s day care model is unique within Germany and it’s one that other German cities are watching. In Hamburg, families are given a voucher, and they can take that voucher and choose any day care, public or private. “The process of getting a place in a kita must be uncomplicated and easy and that’s the way we do it in Hamburg. Parents get a voucher and they can find their kita with their own preferences...you can also search a kita that specializes in arts, cultural things, languages,” says Schweitzer. The idea is that the competition also helps maintain quality, which has been a concern for many families since the legislation was passed. It also guarantees access by families of all income levels.
Germany hasn’t always had such a comprehensive network of daycare centers.
For decades, at least in what was once West Germany, it was difficult to find day care facilities. That’s because German family policy was aimed at keeping women at home after they had children, says Daniel Erler, a researcher who studies family leave policies in Europe.
“In the 1980’s, a series of other leave laws were introduced and basically always the driving argument behind it was we need to enable mothers to take care of their children in order to ensure the well-being of the children, while the the issue of female labor market participation was a secondary one, “ he says. That’s because lawmakers at the time in Western Germany assumed mothers would only return to the work force once their children were grown.
School for young children was only half a day and the child care system was built around this idea of keeping children with their mothers, says Erler.
But, according to Erler, these attitudes began to shift in the 1990s, after Western Germany was reunited with Eastern Germany. In what was then East Germany, child care outside the home was readily available from the age of one. “All-day schooling was the norm as well as all-day child care, and for mothers it was perfectly normal and also expected that they return to the labor market very early after their childbirth,” says Erler.
That East German influence was reflected in the child care legislation that went into effect last year.
Attitudes are a bigger challenge for working moms
While many families in Hamburg say they’re concerned that the quality of child care could go down now that the legislation has increased the demand, at the moment, this hasn’t happened.For many working mothers who would like to have a full time career, the bigger issue now is really how German society views mothers who work.
Policy changes have helped shift some attitudes about career and motherhood, but it’s still very difficult for women to reconcile both. This was a sentiment expressed by a numerous women interviewed for this story, including Michaela Ludwig. “Maybe you learned about that in Germany, that there are two different ways. Either you are a housewife and you are a good mother or you are a working mom and you are a bad mother,” says Ludwig.
This kind of attitude may have been reflected in another piece of legislation, which also went into effect last year and followed the passage of the child care law. Families who decided not to send their children to a kita and keep them at home are entitled to a 150 euro subsidy each month; that’s about $185. The government dubbed it Betreuungsgeld, which means “child care benefit.”
It provoked a heated debate leading up to the country’s general elections last September.
Daniel Erler says nearly 25 percent of Germans chose to take the at-home benefit in 2013.
This particular piece of legislation also had an unintended consequence that many experts had predicted.
“It’s mainly low-income families and families from rural areas with little availability of child care, which then make use of this Betreuungsgeld,” says Erler. This is because when you add that subsidy to other government benefits, low-income women often end up making more money by staying at home.
Mothers like Michaela Ludwig say the at-home subsidy is a sign the country still has long way to go when it comes to accepting women who want to combine career and family.
How do the U.S. and Illinois compare?
During World War II, when millions of women, including mothers, headed out into the labor force to help fill the gap created by the war, the U.S. government recognized the need to provide child care.
“This was really the one and only time that federally funded day care was a reality,” says Sonya Michel, the author of Children’s Interests Mother’s Rights: The Shaping of America’s Child Care Policy. States received federal funds and about 1,000 facilities were opened, says Michel. But the idea was that once the war was over, mothers would return home. They did, and the funding dried up.
In the 1970’s, universal day care hit the public agenda again. In 1971 Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act. It would have created a network of federally funded day care centers. But President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill. “He called it Communist,” says Michel. That veto took universal child care off the political agenda, says Michel.
Today, in Illinois, the only families who qualify for child care assistance are families who are at or below 185 percent of the poverty level, says Maria Whelan, the president of Illinois Action for Children. This leaves out a lot of people. “They rely on a system of friends, families, neighbors and unregulated care,” says Whelan.
In one study last year, Illinois ranked within the top ten least affordable states for child care.
Alexandra Salomon is a producer for WBEZ’s Worldview. Follow her @AlexandraSalomo