OECD Child Welfare Report: Germany's Poor Children in a Wealthy Society

An OECD report on child welfare in member states has the Germans asking why, when they are spending so much money on their children, are one in six still living in relative poverty.

OECD report on child welfare: The Germans compare relatively badly on child poverty but do very well on the education front. Zoom
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OECD report on child welfare: The Germans compare relatively badly on child poverty but do very well on the education front.

A report released Tuesday looking at child welfare in Germany and other developed nations has found that, despite massive government spending, one in six German children is living in relative poverty.

The report, "Doing Better for Children," compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) analyzed data from thirty member states to assess the well being of children across the board. The report, released on the day that German children went back to school after their summer holidays, posed such questions as: What are governments spending on children? What social and welfare policies have the most impact on children? And: Can growing up in a single parent household be detrimental to a child's future?

In Germany, the most troubling result could easily be summed up: the German state spends plenty on its children -- it is one of the biggest spenders in the OECD in this area. But somehow, Germany also has one of the highest percentages of children living in relative poverty.

Spending Above Average on Each Child

From birth to the age of 18, Germany spends over €100,000 on every child, which means it gives between 10 and 20 percent more than other OECD nations for child welfare. However, around 16.3 percent of German children, that is anyone aged 17 and under, are living in relative poverty. Poverty is defined as living in a household where less than half of the national median income is earned. In Germany, where the average income is currently around €27,000 per annum, one in every six children live in such a household. Meanwhile in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, which comes near the top of the table in many areas regarding child welfare, only one in every 40 children lives in relative poverty.

The OECD report suggests that the participating countries could learn from one another. And one of the most obvious points of difference between spending on children in Denmark and Germany is where the money goes. Around 40 percent of the money for German children goes directly to their parents. In Denmark and Sweden it is half of that -- 20 percent of spending on children goes directly to parents. Instead funds are used indirectly. "In these countries, the expenditure is mainly on education and daycare facilities," the report says.

Are German Parents to Blame?

So could it be that German parents are to blame? Are they being more irresponsible with the extra cash they get for their children than parents in other countries?

"That is obviously a controversial statement to make," writes Nicole Janz, a journalist at the left-wing daily, Die Tageszeitung who specializes in family issues and child poverty in Germany. "It's also a common cliché -- the parents who would rather buy cigarettes for themselves than fruit for the family. The German Society for the Protection of Children has been fighting against this prejudice for a long time." In her own experience, and in that of others, Janz says that when the social welfare payments for the children of the long term unemployed go up, the first thing that parents do is fill up the fridge.

Meanwhile Monika Queisser, the head of the OECD study in Germany who presented the report in Berlin on Tuesday, said that childcare and the relatively rare "all-day" schools that looked after children until later in the day -- average German school hours see children leaving between early and mid-afternoon, the so-called "all-day schools" keep pupils until 5 p.m. -- should be developed further.

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child

Tanjev Schultz, the education editor at centre-left daily, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, writes that it "takes a village to raise a child" and suggests that the German government consider more carefully how it spends the funds allotted to child welfare. "The government must be generous with social welfare payments to families," he argues. "But it must steer them carefully so that the money gets to the children and that it doesn't hinder the power of civil society -- rather, it empowers it."

The other big issue raised by the report was the state of single parent families in Germany. On the whole their lot within the OECD isn't a great one. Around 30 percent of single parent families live in relatively poverty. But in Germany this rises to 40 percent.

Again the solution to this seems to be better childcare facilities. As Janz writes, "It would be far more helpful to children living with only one parent if their father or mother could get out to work -- employment being a key to the way out of poverty. Because all the single parent families, a majority of those whom struggle with poverty, could benefit from this."

Children Are Statistically Insignificant

Meanwhile Queisser noted that, rather than general spending, "Germany should be more focused with it's social welfare spending, concentrating more on those children and families who need it most." The accompanying OECD press release for the report said that "based on international evidence Germany should spend more on younger, disadvantaged children." Still, at the report's release in Berlin Queisser told reporters that she also felt that things were headed in the right direction.

And this was the other point that bore discussion. Some of statistics on which the report was based came from as far back as 2003. While Germany could provide up-to-date figures, other countries in the OECD did not. So some elements of the study were based on figures that are five years old. As the OECD study itself noted, unfortunately in some countries children seem to be statistically insignificant. It is, thus, impossible to assess how relevant these figures are today or whether things have been getting better or worse over the past five years. However, in the light of the current recession, it may well be the child poverty could become an even bigger problem in Germany. The German Society for the Protection of Children has already warned of a "massive" increase in child poverty and Professor Hans Bertram, one of Germany's leading researchers into child poverty recently told the BBC that he predicted an increase in child poverty of 2-3 percent this year.

'No Country Performs Well on All Fronts'

As it was, no single country in the OECD was deemed perfect when it came to child welfare. While Denmark was one of the best countries overall, their youth, along with those in the UK, also seemed to have more than average issues with teenage drunkenness. The US stood out as one of the richest countries for children but also had one of the highest rates of child poverty. And while Germany was grappling with that central question of whether they were putting their funds in the right place, the Germans also warranted praise for providing the basic educational items -- only one in 200 children lacked these. The German health system was also doing well for the kids: Teen fertility was also below average and vaccination rates were high. And interestingly enough, more German children like going to school than the OECD average -- 34.9 percent compared to the average of 27.2. As the report concluded, "No OECD country performs well on all fronts."

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