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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Reward Offered: German Babies

Air Date: Week of

While Germany contributes money for international population control, one German state, Brandenburg, is giving cash rewards to women who have more German babies. Alexa Dvorson reports on reaction to this incentive program.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Germany will spend more than $300 million this year on international family planning programs. The money is part of commitments made last fall at the World Summit on Population and Development in Cairo, at which Germany took a leading role in offering to help developing countries reduce their birth rates. But at home, some German authorities are offering money to residents who want to have more children. In the eastern state of Brandenburg, every woman who gives birth automatically gets a government check for 1,000 Deutschmarks, about $650. Supporters say it only makes sense in a region where population is going down, but some say the payments smack of racism. Alexa Dvorson reports from Potsdam.

(Guitar music; women singing in German)

DVORSON: In this sarcastic rendition of Mack the Knife, a women's cabaret mocks the PR on childbearing with the words, "Have more children so they'll be German." It's nothing new that more Germans are dying than are being born. But in eastern Germany, the drop in the birth rate since the Berlin Wall fell has been dramatic: nearly 70% in states like Brandenburg, which surrounds but excludes Berlin. The $650 handout for newborns was started by 2 small communities where no children were being born at all. Then the regional government decided to take up the welcoming money measure statewide. Eva Kunz at Brandenburg's Social Ministry admits the birth allowance won't make a big difference, but she says it's an attempt to support those who make the difficult decision to have a child right now.

KUNZ: People are not silly enough for 1,000 marks, nobody would have a child. I think it's more a symbolic gesture that means you are welcomed. We have a small number of children, and we should give them a very good start in this world.

DVORSON: The reasons for the steep drop in eastern Germany's birth rate lie in both the favorable and miserable results of unification with the west. On one hand, women have more options than they did in the past. Instead of bearing children in their early 20s, as most did in former East Germany, many are postponing motherhood to travel, study abroad, or pursue a career. On the other hand, it is the women of eastern Germany who have been hardest hit by high unemployment. And many who would like to have children say they can hardly afford their rent let alone a family or day care. Other would be mothers have simply left the east and gone west. The welcoming money has been criticized by some west German politicians as a wasted handout. But Eva Kunz warns no one should condemn it without considering the regional factors contributing to such instability in the east since unification.

KUNZ: I think you should look very, very clear what happens in this small and extremely scarcely-populated part of Germany. We don't have foreigners, we don't have children, and we have a large state. It is a problem for the society.

(Traffic; children yelling and laughing in the street)

DVORSON: So far, the state of Brandenburg has paid out roughly 2 million Deutschmarks, about $1.3 million, in welcoming money for the roughly 2,000 babies born in the state since last October. No other states are offering such payments, but that doesn't mean they aren't concerned about Germany's low birth rate. In neighboring Berlin, Bettina Martin of the Senate Administration for Women's Employment, is familiar with the obstacles discouraging women from having more children. Now pregnant herself, she can better appreciate why the declining birth rate in this country is so unsettling.

MARTIN: In Germany our whole social welfare system is built up on the generation contract, we call it, that people who are young pay for the ones who are old. We do rely on this, and a society that doesn't have young people, that doesn't have people with new ideas, where the older people are in the majority, is not a society I would like to live in. And I don't think it has really a future. We need new generations, you know.

(A toddler babbles)

DVORSON: Two-year-old Manisha, who is half German and already bilingual, is well-versed in this German nursery rhyme. Her Indian mother, Shalini Randeria, is well-versed in population policy. Growing up in Delhi, she saw billboards urging women to postpone motherhood and have smaller families. When she arrived in Germany and began teaching anthropology at Berlin's Free University, she found the opposite propaganda here. Shalini Randeria rejects both attempts to manipulate reproduction if the motivation stems from national interest and not women's free choice. She finds it ironic that Europeans are trying to encourage reproduction when environmental degradation stems more from overconsumption in the First World than overpopulation in the Third World. It's not Germany's welcoming money that's racist, says Randeria, but the policy surrounding it.

RANDERIA: Here is a country which advocates for the Third World that they should reduce their population size, and advocates Germans that they should increase their birth rates, with the argument: otherwise the Germans will die out. That's, I think, where the racism comes in. That the Germans are worried about dying out. This worry is being expressed in England and in France exactly the same. So this seems to be really European fear being swamped out by the immigrants.

(West African drumming and singing; church bells ringing)

DVORSON: As these newly-arrived West African drummers play for a curious crowd in the center of Bonn, the mingling of Gothic church bells and Senegalese singing is a fitting snapshot of Germany's emerging multi-ethnic society. The laws haven't caught up yet. With few exceptions, they still define citizenship by blood. Critics say the fear of being swamped by immigrants is part of the real driving force behind measures such as the welcoming money, which the federal government would like to introduce across the country. But the Family Ministry's Head of Demographic Studies, Elizabeth Haines, emphasizes it's not meant to exclude non-Germans. She insists the welcoming money is only meant to ease parents' financial burdens. And in a country still haunted by its past, she dismisses charges that the birth allowance has a racist or nationalist agenda.

HAINES: We are very much concerned not to become a racist society again. We think a foreign child's as welcome as the German child. So I don't see any contradiction. We want to help the people here to have the amount of children they want to have.

DVORSON: No matter what race they are.


DVORSON: In fact, to qualify for the welcoming money you don't need German citizenship, only legal residence in the state of Brandenburg. But unlike the US or Canada, Germany has never defined itself as a country of immigration. And with its newly-restricted asylum laws, it's never been more difficult to get legal residence here. The spokeswoman on population policy for the Association of Action and World Solidarity is Ingrid Spiller.

SPILLER: If you see who can legally migrate to Germany, then you see these are really very, very few people. And okay, maybe the color of their skin is not that important, but at least it's important the social background that they are coming from, and we have a really restrictive immigration policy. And it seems to matter who is born. The question is why don't you do a proper kind of immigration policy, which means that you really allow people from other countries to migrate into Germany and to find their place into the society?

DVORSON: But according to demography professor Rainer Munz, immigration can't solve everything. Professor Munz sees nothing racist in helping developing countries reduce their birth rate if that's what local communities want. Likewise, he sees no contradiction in helping subsidize eligible families in this country when studies indicate people still want children but can't afford them. The sticky part is where a society like Germany's draws the line on its own evolution.

MUNZ: Society as a whole has a certain interest: that people should reproduce themselves. I think it's the other side of the coin of immigration. We cannot say that we should cut out immigration as a solution, but I think we also need a certain, let's put it that way, stock of native population.

DVORSON: What would be the worst scenario if white Europeans started to die out, really?

MUNZ: In the very long run it makes no difference. But if you want to have a country keep going, you need a certain amount of people who grew up in the country and who are familiar with the society and part of the society, active part of the society.

(Women singing Mack the Knife parody to a laughing crowd)

DVORSON: The state demands more offspring registered in the books, the sassy women sing. That's our duty. But who wants to do that? No matter what reasons women in eastern Germany aren't having more children, Germany's society is clearly at a crossroads. Until leaders redefine who is German, measures such as welcoming money for newborn babies in Brandenburg may still appear weighted with racist connotations, even if that's not the intent. For Living on Earth, this is Alexa Dvorson in Potsdam, Germany.



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