For decades now, Germany has been a demographic time bomb, with a fast-graying society and a shrinking population creating a recipe for disaster for the future of the country's cradle to grave social welfare system. On Wednesday, though, the country reported its first fertility rate increase since 2001, with an average number of 1.37 children per woman in 2007 -- up from 1.33 the previous year. Germany's Federal Statistical Office reported 685,000 births in the country last year, 12,000 more than in 2006.
The report also showed a dramatic increase in births among residents of the states belonging to the former East Germany, where fertility rates had dropped radically in the 1990s shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1995, the fertility rate in the eastern states hit a historical low, with an average of only 0.84 children per woman.
The statistics are the first to be issued since a new law went into effect in January 2007 aimed at boosting the fertility rate by increasing benefits to parents of newborns. Under the law, the country pays the parent who stays home with the child 67 percent of that parent's current income, up to a maximum of €1,800 ($2,810) a month, for up to 12 months. If both parents elect to take time off, the total number of months the benefit is paid, split between both parents, goes up to 14 -- a measure intended to encourage fathers to take time off work and help ease mothers back into the workplace. So far, most fathers have been taking two months off, according to the government. By pegging benefits to salaries, the legislation also made it more attractive for higher-earning Germans to have children.
'Parents Have Taken a Leap of Faith'
Ursula von der Leyen of the conservative Christian Democrats, the family minister in Chancellor Angela Merkel's government who was the legislation's architect, said Wednesday that the policy was already bearing fruit.
"Parents have taken a leap of faith, that we cannot fritter away," von der Leyen said, responding to Wednesday's news and using the opportunity to push for the further expansion of family benefits to increase the birthrate. The family minister said that the federal government, states and cities must work together, "hand in hand" with business to give young parents a "real chance to balance family and career." In the past, she said, Germans were forced to choose one or the other.
Von der Leyen currently wants to increase the country's monthly benefit payment to parents for each child they have, expand government-subsidized childcare facilities and also boost the benefit covering salaries lost when a parent takes time off from work to raise a child, particularly for young fathers.
Wednesday's report also showed a marked increase in the fertility rate in women between 33 and 37, with women under 25 having fewer babies. "This shows that prospects for mothers who are already in the middle of their professional lives have clearly improved," said von der Leyen.
Still, the fertility rate for 2007 fell short of a prediction made by von der Leyen in March. "I'll bet anyone that the birth rate for 2007 will be over 1.4." Internally, officials in her ministry were forecasting 1.47 at the time, according to media reports.
Though Wednesday's reported hinted Germany's revamped family policy could be making a difference, insufficient research has been conducted so far to directly peg the increase in the fertility rate to von der Leyen's reforms. Preliminary figures for the first months of 2008 show no definitive results, and it will take at least another full year's data before the increased fertility rate can be considered a trend.
"The increase in the birth rate is so minimal that it would be absolutely foolish if it were attributed to any political measures," demographer Herwig Birg told the Web site of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "In 2007, there were so many factors that could have had an impact on the number of children. Not least of which was the soccer World Cup in 2006, which contributed to a euphoric atmosphere and helped to contribute to a greater number of births in 2007."
In Germany, the government is concerned that in the not-too-distant future, it will have too few workers to keep its economy buzzing and not have enough tax payers to cover the state pension and healthcare systems. The Statistical Office predicts that the country's current population of 82 million will decline to between 69 million and 74 million by 2050 -- less than the population in 1963, when Germany had 75 million people.
rbn -- with wire reports