Encouraging Baby-Making in West Germany Population rates in Germany are at record lows, and many citizens say it's because of the expense of raising a child. In Western Germany, one mayor is making changes to encourage working women to have more children -- and the birthrate there is rising.
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Encouraging Baby-Making in West Germany

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Encouraging Baby-Making in West Germany

Encouraging Baby-Making in West Germany

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, a New Orleans photographer describes how the recent flood has affected him.

But first, Germany will hold national elections soon, and competing parties are trying to show how family-friendly they are. The ruling Social Democrats have offered parents cash incentives and tax breaks, but many working women say they really need full-time day-care centers and all-day kindergartens. But those are hard to find. NPR's Rachel Martin reports that the small town of Laer is trying to change that.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

While the bulk of Germany suffers from a severely declining population, there's a virtual baby boom in Laer. The birthrate here is nearly 50 percent above the national average. Until a few years ago, Laer was like other towns in West Germany where schools close at noon and day cares are virtually non-existent. Hans-Jurgen Schimke is the mayor of Laer. This former professor-turned-small town mayor has made a national name for himself by trying to change perceptions about child care.

Mayor HANS-JURGEN SCHIMKE (Laer): Many peoples in many towns think that if the parents work, not that--it's a private problem. And so to understand that it's a public problem, a public task to do that, to support the parents--that's not--it's not usual.

MARTIN: Schimke says about three years ago the community came together and pushed the state to fund more full-time child-care options. Now in this town of 6,500 people, there are six all-day kindergartens and a 400-student elementary school with an after-school program.

(Soundbite of school lunchtime)

MARTIN: It's lunchtime at the Laer elementary school and about 20 kids are finishing up bowls of cherry pudding for dessert before starting their after-school programs. Two years ago, these children would have gone home for lunch at noon, making it impossible for mothers to hold down a job. Inge Behler is the founder of the after-school programs in Laer, programs she says have been crucial for mothers who don't want to have to choose between having a job and having children.

Ms. INGE BEHLER (After-School Programs Founder, Laer): (Through Translator) We have mothers that come during the school year and say, `I found a job and I can go to work now because my child can go to day care from now on.' That was, before, for many mothers, not possible at all.

MARTIN: The new all-day schools have made a real difference for families in Laer, like that of Christian Wust and his wife, Anne Altena. Wust, who works for an insulation company, picks up his nine-year-old daughter from school while his wife works late. He and Altena spearheaded the effort to get a full-time school in Laer, something he said was crucial for his family.

Mr. CHRISTIAN WUST: (Through Translator) On the one hand, financially; on the other hand, it's necessary, because my wife wanted to work and not be a housewife.

MARTIN: His wife, Anne Altena, works as a secretary for a technology company outside Laer. She says there's still a real divide between West and East Germany when it comes to working mothers.

Ms. ANNE ALTENA: (Through Translator) Day care was readily available in the former DDR, but not here because the idea was in West Germany that it was the parents' duty to take care of the children. I think that it is actually a very slow development that cannot be pushed through quickly.

MARTIN: According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany spends 3 percent of its GDP to encourage and support families. But the bulk of this comes in the form of cash payments to parents to offset the cost of raising a child. Critics say this does little to encourage Germany's career-minded women to have children. Kerstin Klopp-Koch is the founder of the Berlin chapter of Working Mothers, a national association that lobbies for better infrastructure for mothers who want a family and a career.

Ms. KERSTIN KLOPP-KOCH (Founder, Berlin Chapter of Working Mothers): They often really have this impression `I decide between career and children.' So a lot of these well-educated women, they really don't care about 50 euros more per month. I mean, what is important for them is to work. So for them it doesn't really help to have the financial relief. It's the service. It's the infrastructure.

MARTIN: Compared to other Western European countries, Germany ranks close to the bottom when it comes to providing services like all-day kindergarten and day-care facilities, according to the OECD. But Mayor Hans-Jurgen Schimke of Laer says there are signs that may be changing, as federal, state and local leaders realize that if you help women balance work and family, he says, they will often choose to have more children.

Mayor SCHIMKE: The colleagues in the region, they speak in another way about this problem. We--earlier they laughed about Laer. They said, `You with your children.' Ha, ha. But now there's--it's a changement and they take it serious.

MARTIN: Several other towns near Laer opened their own full-time kindergartens this year, and the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia has set a goal to implement full-day programming at 30 percent of all schools in the state by 2007. Rachel Martin, NPR News, Berlin.

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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