In February, Germany's Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen was all smiles as she released her "Family Report 2009." The report indicated that 2008 saw a rise in the German birthrate -- good news in a country that has been suffering from a dropping number of babies for years.
Even better for von der Leyen, though, was that the numbers seemed to indicate that her family policies, pushed through in 2007, were a success. Generous payments to couples who took time off work to have children seemed to be having the desired effect.
The problem, though, is that the mother of seven's report only used data for January through September 2008. On Tuesday, though, the German Federal Statistical Office released preliminary figures for all of 2008, and the news is not pretty. Rather than the heralded rise in births, 2008 saw a 1.1 percent drop in the birthrate -- or 8,000 fewer children for a country already worried about its growing demographic crisis.
German commentators on Wednesday criticized von der Leyen for her premature triumphalism and said her policies didn't go far enough.
Conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"Germany's baby-boom dream has been shattered.... In fact, it was rather naïve to believe that social technocrats could so easily manipulate how people thought about having children."
"For the members of the ruling grand coalition (eds note: made up of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats) who are championing the new family polices, the matter of higher birthrates continues to be only a side issue. Their main goal is to increase the levels of women participating in the workforce. Paying benefits to parents, building more day-care centers and amending laws on child-support payments were meant to reduce adherence to the family model that advocates a working father and a stay-at-home mother. Family policies underwent a paradigm shift, and the new message was that mothers should be employed."
"Today's modern family politicians frown upon any discussion of freedom of choice. As they see it, a woman is not emancipated if she defers her career goals to have children. And, according to this way of thinking, if a woman chooses to stay at home with her small child instead of sending it to day care, she is displaying a dangerous ignorance about early-childhood development."
"The push for these family policies comes from business interests and the pressure exerted by equality advocates. In the future, you can only hope that many couples will have children despite -- rather than because of -- these policies."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Ursula von der Leyen is a superwoman with a perfect image. Whenever she mixes with the media, she always has dapper clothes, perfect hair and a big smile. And even though she happily spends a lot of time in front of the cameras loudly praising the success of her policies, she still has time to take care of her many children. What an amazing role model!"
"But praising your own success stinks ... when it is based on false facts. Playing fast and loose with statistics was irresponsible of and embarrassing for von der Leyen, and it has shattered her image."
"But maybe this is a good thing, too. The shining example of a minister who is able to juggle children and a tough job without any problems has apparently done little to inspire people to follow her example. If the family minister is really interested in success, she has to be quite a bit braver and stop trying to get party allies and businesses to do the right thing with only voluntary agreements and gentle nudges. Instead, parental leave needs to be equally divided between fathers and mothers, and fathers shouldn't be able to transfer their parental-leave months to mothers. Day-care workers need to receive better training and earn more money so that parents will worry less about putting their children into day care. And the arrangements that lead many married women to stay at home for tax advantages need to be replaced by ones that tax individuals rather than couples."
"These goals are admittedly a tall order. But if Ursula von der Leyen pursued them, of course she might fail and lose a little of her luster, but she just might make more normal women (and voters) feel a bit more like they are being paid attention to."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"It is naïve to believe that Germany can tackle its demographic problem with financial instruments alone. There are a lot more factors that go into deciding to have a child than just governmental subsidies. Potential parents need to be confident that they will be able to take care of the child. And they will need to assess whether they have enough time for a baby and whether they can reconcile having a child with the plans they currently have for their lives and careers."
"There is no doubt that financial assistance from the government is important for young parents. But it is only one among many factors to consider in starting a family. At least as important is having a secure job, a sufficient number of places in kindergartens and an employer who is willing to accommodate parents' efforts to juggle careers and children.... These aren't the kinds of things that can be measured with quarterly statistics."