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Konrad Werner: Much Betreuungsgeld about nothing

Yesterday was the first day of the surreal Betreuungsgeld. It shows everything that's wrong with Germany's social policy.

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Photo by Dave Parker (daveparker, Flickr CC)

Yesterday was the first day of the surreal Betreuungsgeld. It shows everything that’s wrong with Germany’s social policy.

Pinch, punch, first of the month, as people don’t say enough anymore. Yesterday was August 1, which meant not only could you physically assault people out of superstition, do a superstitious Amoklauf if you wanted, but also, there were – NEW LAWS! Hooray!

One of them was Betreuungsgeld – also known as the Housewife Bonus, or the Cooker Fee, or the Woman-Get-Thee-T’Kitchen-Allowance (in Yorkshire). It’s an extra 150 bucks from the government for keeping your child at home and choosing not to take up one of Germany’s precious kindergarten spots with your offspring. This piece of legislation, which was shoehorned into this government’s “coalition contract” by the We-Love-Being-Bavarian Party (All their voters are Bavarian, which is largely because you can only vote for them in Bavaria. Why do they still get to put three ministers in the federal cabinet, including the interior minister? I don’t know. You got me. Why the fuck is my auntie not my uncle?) in 2009, has caused what you could call A Lot Of Discussion.

Whole leading newspaper columnist careers rose and fell like great empires during this five-year debate. Reputations were made and broken. Politicians gave and received verbal slaps in the face. (Most recently, Family Minister Kristina Schröder told SPD candidate Peer Steinbrück, “Anyone who thinks that if you offer us women €150 we’ll forget all our professional ambitions, must be living in the 1950s and have a problem with his Frauenbild.” She might be bonkers, but you have to admit that was a good one.)

The opposition fretted about What Would Happen (women would be kept off the job market), and How This Would Affect The Immigrants (their children would be less integrated), and now the first figures have come through, and it turns out that – hardly any parent has actually applied for it. Not a single person in the state of Thuringia, for example, and the Bavarians, the ones who started all this with their broody multi-kid Catholic ways? 562.

So what was all this talk for? Clearly, it turns out, it was not about anything practical. Whether or not a few hundred children stay home all day for two years or go out and make friends and have a life is not gonna make much difference in the long run. It was an ideological debate – Do you believe in the Family or the State? Are you (at heart, not in real life) a Catholic or a Communist? Because the weird thing about Betreuungsgeld is that, even though it is a state benefit, it is specifically not meant to help poor people. In fact, if you live on Hartz IV and apply for it, it will be subtracted from your monthly allowance. In other words, for Hartz IV Empfängers Betreuungsgeld is essentially a form you fill in to show you are ideologically Catholic.

The other weird thing about it is that it is a state benefit you get for opting out of another state benefit – a “free” kindergarten place. This is the CSU’s justification for it – it is only fair that parents who do not want to hand their children over to the state for the day (what are we, fucking Communists?) should be financially compensated.

Well, in that case, I’ve got a few more ideas for state benefits that I would eligible for. There are lots of state-funded things I regularly opt out of. For example, I prefer going to the movies than to those massive state-funded operas – because I believe opera is fucking boring and films are ace. That is my lifestyle choice. So where’s my Kinoprämie? I also do not like buses and U-Bahns, because they are smelly. I think I should get Autogeld.  

The surreal Betreuungsgeld illustrates everything that’s wrong with Germany’s social policy. It’s money thrown at something that the state has no need to fund. It could all be so simple: social benefits have one purpose, to help people with less money and fewer opportunities. That’s why we pay taxes and social insurance. In Germany, it’s all fucked up – poor people basically pay for their own benefits: if you are single and earn, say, €1300 a month, you likely pay over €300 in tax and insurance. That leaves you with an income low enough to be considered in poverty. So you can claim benefits.