By JUERGEN BAETZ, Associated Press
BERLIN (AP) — Germany's governing coalition is locked in a dispute over a new benefit program that would help young parents who stay at home rather than work send their children to a day-care center.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative government — which is urging most European nations to implement austerity measures to cut back debt — plans to spend about €1 billion ($1.32 billion) annually for the new program as the country's economy remains robust and tax hauls rise.
German media widely refer to the program as "Herdpraemie" or, loosely translated, "kitchen bonus" — in a reference to the perception that it would pay moms to cook for their kids rather than work.
About two dozen lawmakers from Merkel's party have openly threatened to veto the new legislation, which many view as an unnecessary subsidy for an outdated family model.
Lawmaker Josef Schlarmann, who also heads the party's mid-size business group, told German tabloid Bild on Wednesday the new program "sets completely wrong incentives."
"We need a wide array of day care options so that every woman can decide whether she takes care of her child herself or gives it to a day-care center," he was quoted as saying.
The program would grant a monthly subsidy of €100 ($130) starting in 2013, rising to €150 ($200) per month a year later, when one parent — in most cases in Germany still the mother — stays at home to care for their children until the age of three. The program would follow a more generous subsidy that most parents are entitled to until about their child's first birthday.
Merkel's junior coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats, is at best lukewarm about the legislation, but refrained from vetoing it after government lawmakers threatened such a move could derail the coalition.
The opposition Social Democrats and the Greens dismiss the legislation as an attempt to promote conservative family values that would bar women from employment and children from receiving early education in child care centers.
Some lawmakers also say the financial incentive to care for children at home would be biggest for poorer families, such as immigrants, whose children would stand to benefit the most from early childhood education.
Experts say a lack of day-care options often still forces German mothers to stay at home, causing a loss of skilled workers in an economy that already has labor shortages in some segments.
While the new program would indeed support women staying at home longer, Family Minister Kristina Schroeder acknowledged Wednesday that long breaks after giving birth often put women at a disadvantage in the professional world.
"The experience shows that women still too scarcely manage to substantially re-enter the job market after a long family related pause, especially in West Germany," she said.
In Germany, it is almost the norm for young mothers to take time off for a full year after giving birth, unlike in France, for instance, where a break of only three months is common. Child care has long been a controversial, partisan issue in Germany — a country where the term "raven mother" is a reference to a mother who does not spend enough time caring for her children.
The new monthly subsidy would be paid to all families independently of their income. However, German media reported Wednesday that the coalition wants to effectively exclude the poorest families from enjoying it by lowering their state welfare benefits accordingly.
The government declined to comment on the reports, saying the legislation was not finalized yet.
The Social Democrat's general secretary, Andrea Nahles, sharply criticized the plan, saying it would mean that an unemployed single mother would not benefit from the new program, "unlike the wife of a wealthy manager."
Merkel long stayed silent while the dispute over the program lingered within her conservative bloc, but she has now come forward to defend it as giving families greater freedom.
"Everybody must be free to organize child care for his family," seconded Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich on Wednesday.
The government forecasts that the measure would cost €1.2 billion ($1.58 billion) annually starting in 2014.
Follow Juergen Baetz on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jbaetz