(April 2001) More than 10 years after unification, substantial social, economic, and cultural differences persist between eastern and western Germany. In public day care for children, though, there has been some convergence. Still, this coming together is not necessarily for the better, in terms of mothers’ employment prospects.

In contrast to the United States, where day care for children is mostly subsidized through cash transfers, German day care is publicly provided. The day-care centers are run either by municipalities or by subsidized nonprofit organizations. The coverage levels, however, have differed widely between eastern Germany (the former German Democratic Republic) and the western states of the Federal Republic.

Throughout the history of the GDR, the East German government strongly supported the use of institutional day care for children of all ages. Apart from ideological purposes, the government’s primary aim was to establish the compatibility of childrearing and the employment of mothers. In the 1980s, child-care slots for about 80 percent of infants and school-age children were available. The provision of slots in kindergarten was as high as 95 percent, and the cost of care to parents was negligible.

In contrast, the situation in West Germany was — and is — very different. Since childrearing is considered primarily the mother’s responsibility, the provision of day care, especially for very young children, has been limited, and all-day care has only rarely been available.

Data from the German Youth Institute show that the child-care provision rates in eastern Germany did not drop dramatically after unification. This finding is somewhat surprising, given that many day-care facilities closed at that time because subsidies from the central government were discontinued. The explanation is that birth rates decreased by about half in the first years after unification. (In fact, the total fertility rate for eastern German states was 0.8 in the mid-1990s.) Accordingly, child-care provision rates in eastern Germany still exceed western German levels many times over (see Table 1).

In western Germany, on the other hand, there have not been substantial changes in the day-care situation. Even care for half the day is still common only for children ages 4 to 6 who attend kindergarten.

What are the consequences of the changing day-care situation after unification for the opportunities of women, particularly mothers, to participate in the labor force? Parents in eastern Germany demand fewer child-care slots for their children than are potentially available. One explanation for this is the high unemployment rate among eastern German women, which has led to a shift from institutional day care to maternal care. Consequently, it is likely that the number of child-care slots will be further reduced. In times of better labor market prospects, eastern German mothers would then no longer be in a better position than their western counterparts to pursue childrearing and gainful employment.

Karsten Hank is a Ph.D. student at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany.

For More Information

This article is based on Working Paper 2001–003, “Außerhäusliche Kinderbetreuung in Ostdeutschland vor und nach der Wiedervereinigung,” by Karsten Hank, Katja Tillmann, and Gert G. Wagner. It is available (in German only) on the website of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research at: www.demogr.mpg.de/.