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Family Policy in Germany: Towards a Macro-sociological Frame for Analysis

Thomas Bahle

The paper is part of preparatory work on a German country study in the international research project "Family changes and family policies in the West", co-ordinated by the MZES.

The aim of this paper is to develop a macro-sociological framework for analysing family policy in Germany. Family policy as used throughout the paper includes all individual policies (measures) explicitly or implicitly directed at the family. As an inter-sectional field it can be structured by various dimensions, including the division between central and state and local government, public and private agencies, policy instruments (cash benefits, tax regulations, services), and different aspects of family relations as policy targets (marriage, parenthood, generations). The paper aims to analyse German family policy along these dimensions, but does not study policy indicators in detail except social expenditure data. I focus on independent (macro-social and institutional) rather than dependent (family policy indicators) variables. In the long run, family policy has been shaped by historical processes and social institutions of German society. I focus on these specific institutional conditions, but do not neglect the predominance of Christian democracy as one major factor in the development of German family policy. First, core institutions of German society are specified which have had a strong hypothetical impact on family policy. Then, major characteristics of family policy are summarized. The paper concludes with a general overview of German family policy.

German family policy shows a great discrepancy between idea and practice: while highly institutionalized with elaborate explicit concepts, practical policies are modest by international comparison. The Ministry of the Family was established in 1954, and from 1968 in every legislature one family report has been produced by a committee of independent experts appointed by government. These reports are extensively commented on by government, discussed in the Bundestag, and published. The Family Ministry and the family reports have contributed to the institutionalization of debate on the family. Wide-ranging concepts have been developed: family policy in a cross-sectional view, as horizontal equalization of family burdens and all-encompassing ‘societal’ policy.

Moreover, political conditions have been favourable for explicit family policy. The Federal Republic has been continuously governed by the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) with the only interruption from 1969 to 1982 when a Social Democratic–Liberal government held office. Christian Democrats dominated German politics after the war, even if they had to form government coalitions, mainly with the Liberals. Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium belong to the ‘Christian democratic family of nations’ (Castles 1993). If there is a Christian democratic welfare state, it should be here and have an explicit policy providing much support to the family (Van Kersbergen 1995). However, this is not the case in any of these countries except Belgium. The family belongs to the core of Christian democratic ideology, but there seems to be a gap between idea and practice. In Germany family benefits are modest by comparison: public spending on family policy as percent of total social expenditure is medium (ESSPROS data); Germany holds a middle position also in comparisons of child support packages across various model families (Bradshaw 1993).

It makes sense to study the present structure of family policy historically, because individual measures have developed within different institutional contexts at various times and were not always regarded as part of family policy. Often, their aims and functions changed considerably over time. For instance, maternity benefits and survivors’ pensions were introduced in the nineteenth-century German Empire as part of social insurance for the working class. Kindergartens were also first established in the previous century by early-childhood pedagogues in order to socialize and educate young children, whereas today they are viewed as being closely related to improving compatibility between employment and family. The Weimar Republic established the basic structure for social services, social assistance, and industrial relations, but family wages and family allowances were not introduced except for a short period after World War I. They were not successful, because trade unions and employers strongly opposed them. On the whole, family policy was underdeveloped compared to other Continental European countries at that time. Despite their rhetoric, the Nazis did not change this practice fundamentally, but superimposed bizarre populationist ambitions on family policy. There was no major effort to support families; only a few new measures were introduced on a limited scale; for example, family allowances were initially only for large families.

German history has been characterized by political fragmentation and discontinuity, but also by strong institutional traditions (Lepsius 1983). I concentrate on the Federal Republic in which new institutions were set up in view of historical experiences, the failure of the Weimar Republic and the trauma of the Nazi dictatorship. Partly, however, traditions from before the Nazi regime were restored, too. I distinguish between a number of elements which have had a long-lasting impact on family policy in Germany: federalism, subsidiarity, industrial relations, the Constitutional Court, the welfare state, the role of law, the public sector, and major changes in German social structure after World War II. In addition, the predominance of Christian democracy has been of major importance. Of course, these institutional conditions have been significant for any policy area, but I focus on their consequences for family policy in particular.


Legislation and organization of family policy is divided between three levels of government: federal state, states (Länder), and local communities. Three aspects have been important for family policy. First, the states have a voice in federal decision-making through the Bundesrat, including tax policies that are important for family-related tax benefits and financing of family policy. Second, the states have major competencies in certain policy areas, for example education is the states’ (Länder) prerogative. The federal state has only limited competencies in higher education. Though related to the family, education has never been integrated into family policy. There is almost no family dimension in the education system, particularly with respect to school hours and organization. Third, local communities are self-governed and have limited autonomy in certain policy areas, e.g. in providing social services and child and youth welfare. Within federal framework legislation and state policies, local communities are responsible for social service provision, especially in childcare. Recently the Bundestag enacted legislation entitling every child aged 3–6 to a kindergarten place, to be implemented by local communities from 1996–1999.


Subsidiarity is a general principle of social organization demanding that social tasks be carried out at the lowest possible level. In Germany, it is the outcome of conflicts between state and church in the Empire. In a specific sense subsidiarity means that non-profit welfare organizations have an institutionalized and privileged role in society, mainly in providing social services, especially in childcare, services for the handicapped and people in need of long-term care. In the Child and Youth Welfare Act 1990 the privileged position of these organizations is explicitly stated: they are given preference over public and market-based provision. Federalism and subsidiarity are based on historically strong intermediary structures in German society. A major consequence is that there are no universal policies in this area. The aims, structures and organization of services vary widely between Länder, local communities and welfare organizations. In this subsidiary framework it is not possible to organize services around one central aim, such as compatibility between employment and family.

Industrial relations

A similar logic prevails in industrial relations. Trade unions and employers’ associations are largely autonomous in deciding wages, working conditions and working times in collective agreements (Tarifautonomie). Strong trade unions and employers’ associations operating on an industry-wide basis have contributed to a firmly rooted institutionalization of class conflict in Germany. The state sets the framework, but does not intervene directly. From a family viewpoint, Tarifautonomie is a structural barrier to compatibility between employment and family. Furthermore, industry-wide collective agreements are modified by enterprise-level bargaining where German trade unions are strong partners in co-determination (Mitbestimmung). As a consequence, working conditions vary between branches and enterprises.

Welfare state

In Germany, social security was introduced comparatively early as part of Bismarck’s political strategy to integrate the industrial working class in the German Reich and at the same time destroy their industrial movement and political organization. In the long run, this policy failed, but its impact on social security was long-lasting: the German welfare state became strongly employment-centred and dominated by social insurance. A family dimension was added later, beginning at the turn of the century, mainly through derived rights rather than citizenship or means-tested provisions. Employment and family status became the parameters of German social insurance which strongly emphasized security of social status. As a consequence, the family dimension became significant, but was never fully integrated in family policy. Family-related benefits and regulations in social security were placed in an ambiguous position between social insurance and family policy. More-over, blue-collar workers, white-collar employees and civil servants were covered by separate schemes with varying benefits, especially with respect to the family, e.g. in survivors’ pensions. Though today differences between blue- and white-collar employees have almost disappeared, civil servants are still privileged. Family allowances were introduced first by the Nazis for large families on a universal basis, then, in 1954 again as an employment-related scheme. Only in 1964 (Bundeskindergeldgesetz) was there a shift towards a universal basis, fully implemented in 1975. Family benefits were either integrated early in social insurance as derived rights (survivors’ pensions, health care insurance, maternity benefits starting in the nineteenth century) or introduced relatively late on a universal basis (family allowances, child-rearing benefit in 1986) when the core of the welfare state was already firmly established. This is one reason for the relatively weak institutional position of family policy in the German welfare state.

Federal Constitutional Court

The Federal Constitutional Court plays a significant role in German politics in general. The first major function of the Court is related to federalism and separation of powers: it has to decide in conflicts between the three levels of government and various institutions within the federal state. The second major function rests on the fact that the German Basic Law guarantees basic individual rights to every citizen and resident of Germany. These rights stand above legislation, governments, and courts, and are directly enforceable; they cannot be abolished, but qualified only by law. The Constitutional Court has become a powerful symbol and advocate of these rights, and watches to ensure they are respected. Anyone who feels deprived of these rights is entitled to submit a petition to the Court. Since marriage and the family are also protected by the Basic Law, the Constitutional Court has often intervened in legislation and strongly influenced family policy. Three examples may suffice: privileges accorded to marriage in the tax system since the 1950s were preceded by Court decision; exemption of subsistence income from taxation (graded by family size) followed Court decisions in the 1990s; most prominently, the Court declared a number of laws on abortion passed by the Bundestag as unconstitutional, because they violated the unborn child’s right to life. The present law is also based on a Court decision which rules that abortion without specific indication is illegal, but will not be punished if performed within the first twelve weeks of pregnancy following formal counselling.

Rule of law

The rule of law and courts have been major characteristics of German society since the Empire, except during the Nazi regime. Though not democratic, Prussia and the German Empire were governed by law. The legal profession played a significant role in state bureaucracy, courts and civil society. The civil society law culminated in the Civil Code of 1900 (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch BGB) in which family and marriage were firmly established as institutions endowed with strong rights and duties. Today, marriage and parenthood are still strong legal institutions. Family maintenance obligations may even be regarded as the second stronghold of subsidiarity, together with the institutionalized associative sector. Civil law enforces ‘private’ obligations, e.g. in case of divorce when the financial obligations of ex-spouses are emphasized in alimony and pension-splitting (Versorgungsausgleich), and in child maintenance when parents are obliged to support children at least until they have completed their education, and possibly for the rest of their lives.

Public sector

The privileged position of the public sector also has its roots in the history of Prussia and other German states as absolutist regimes with strong bureaucracies. The status of civil servants (Beamter) was endowed with numerous privileges, among them life-long tenure, seniority, family-related salaries (Alimentation) and social security (Versorgung) including family members. Some of these privileges were gradually extended via collective agreements to workers and employees in the public sector, whose salaries strongly vary by family status and size and who enjoy flexible working time and time rights related to family obligations. But life-long tenure and civil service pensions remain the exclusive privilege of civil servants.

Social structure

After World War II German social structure underwent fundamental changes which paved the way for the success of the universal idea of family policy. The old class society with separate social class society with separate social worlds had almost vanished when the working class became fully integrated and millions of refugees had to find their place in German society. Social changes further contributed to a more integrated society. These changes laid the foundation for a universal concept of family policy as general ‘societal’ policy (Gesellschaftspolitik) covering the whole population rather than directed at specific social groups. Family policy was not directed at the working class, and it was not regarded as social policy in the sense of social security or vertical redistribution. The prevailing concept has been horizontal redistribution in favour of families within the same social (income) groups, also closely related to Christian democratic ideas.

Christian democracy

Against the background of these general institutional structures and developments it is difficult to disentangle the role of Christian democracy in German family policy. Of course, their political predominance has been deeply interwoven with German society and the institutions of the Federal Republic. Here I would like to mention four central elements which are usually regarded as ‘pure’ Christian democratic, but only one of them holds without further qualification. For good reasons, tax policy in favour of families is regarded as typically Christian democratic. It is based on the idea of horizontal rather than vertical redistribution of income, and on the idea of subsidiarity which means leaving to families what they need to support themselves. Its major components have been child tax allowances and married couples’ tax splitting. It should be noted that the original intention of tax splitting was to support mothers at home (families with one income) rather than marriage as such. It changed its character as the proportion of couples without children increased and is therefore disputed today, because it largely benefits couples without children. One should not forget, however, that the predominance of tax policies is also historically based: tax benefits were introduced in the Weimar Republic, whereas child allowances were first introduced by the Nazis and – on a different basis – in the Federal Republic in 1954. Tax benefits therefore were never as closely related to Nazi population policy as child allowances, which delegitimized the latter to a great extent. Moreover, the Constitutional Court and the states were important actors in implementing tax reliefs (see above). Housing policy also shows a strong family dimension in the promotion of home ownership which seems to be typically Christian democratic. One should not forget, however, that home ownership never dominated German housing policies, because promoting private investment in the rent sector and provision of public social housing were equally important, although with changing priorities over time. After the war, social housing was very important, whereas home ownership came latest. The ‘purest’ Christian democratic elements can perhaps be found in the existence of the Family Ministry and the parental leave and child-rearing benefit introduced in 1986. Since the Family Ministry is weak and mainly serves a symbolic function, parental leave and the child-rearing benefit may be called the only legitimate children of Christian democratic family policy. Their leading principle is that one parent should stay at home and care for young children. The cash benefit is universal, covering employed women, housewives, and the self-employed, too. It is not policy for working women, but a mother’s wage granted on a universal basis. Increasingly, however, the benefit has become income-tested and today it cannot be called universal any more, because almost half of entitled parents do not receive the full amount for the whole period.

To summarize, then, the initial evidence indicates that basic characteristics of German family policy can be attributed to broader historical developments and institutional structures of German society. In particular, the fact that family policy in Germany developed later than in most Continental European countries can be related to the early breakthrough of the welfare state and the troubles and discontinuities in the German polity in the 1920s and 1930s which was the formative period of family policy in Europe. In the Federal Republic, family policy soon became ambitious in conceptual terms, but remained rather limited in practice. This is partly explained by the reluctance of Christian Democrats to intervene in family matters, because of their leading principle of subsidiarity, and partly it is the result of the fragmented character of family policy. Though German family policy is highly institutionalized, it is fragmented within the federal structure and between public and private actors: federal state, Länder, local communities, welfare organizations, trade unions and employers’ associations, courts, the Constitutional Court and other institutions are involved in family-related policies. Family policy therefore is built on compromises under the political predominance of Christian democracy.

A number of specific characteristics can also be related to this institutional regime: the significance of the family dimension in social security, the predominance of tax reliefs for families rather than cash benefits, the slow development of social services, the emphasis put on marriage rather than children, and the predominance of non-profit welfare organizations in providing social services. Most striking perhaps is the particularist approach to family policy which reflects the lack of practical integration of policies. For example, problems that cut across various policy areas, such as compatibility of employment and family, are not approached in an integrated way. Effective policies to solve this basic problem should integrate among others tax policies, cash benefits, the provision of childcare services and flexible working arrangements, implying that the federal state, Länder, local communities, welfare organizations and social partners should work closely together. Yet this is very difficult to achieve. Therefore the German institutional regime strongly underpins a primarily horizontal, universal though limited approach to family policy in favour of status-oriented redistribution rather than problem-oriented interventions intersecting various policy areas. Furthermore, rapid and fundamental changes are impossible, because major reforms are not as easily implemented as in Sweden or the United Kingdom. On the other hand, firmly established institutions with strong vested interests such as social insurance predominate. Compared to these institutions family policy is weak and not fully integrated.

The profile of German family policy cannot be shown in detail here and must be limited to some aggregate expenditure data (West-Germany) (Figure 1). Looking first at expenditures across time, we see that the married couples’ tax splitting, though declining, has always been the outstanding individual measure. Second in terms of expenditure come child tax allowances and child benefit. This dual system of family income redistribution lasted until 1975 when the Social Democratic–Liberal government abolished tax allowances, but was re-introduced by the Christian Democratic–Liberal coalition in the 1980s. A new integrated system eventually replaced the dual one in 1996. Child and youth welfare expenditures are only modest, but increased continuously, mainly due to the growth in childcare services. Family-related benefits in the public sector still represent a large though declining share. In last place is the child-rearing benefit.

Looking at 1993 cross-sectional expenditure data (Table 1), we see that the family dimension in social insurance is the most important category, especially health care for family members and survivors’ pensions. But these provisions are not an integral part of family policy and hold an ambiguous position between family policy and social insurance. Often they are regarded as benefits outside the insurance principle, because they are non-contributory in the technical sense. Family-related tax benefits occupy second place. The married couples’ tax splitting is followed by child tax allowances and tax benefits for specific family types. Family cash benefits represent only one-fifth of total family-related expenditure, the general child benefit being most important, followed by family-related supplements in the public sector and the child-rearing benefit. Child and youth welfare services amount to 12.6% of total family-related expenditure, while childcare services make up only 4% including public subsidies to voluntary welfare organizations.

Family policy in Germany is not declining, but there is also no sign of major improvements. Nonetheless, one might be inclined to expect certain changes, because the welfare state needs to be reformed, and when the state withdraws from providing services and social security for individuals, the family is expected to shoulder part of the burden. How should this be possible without public support for the family?

References and Sources

Bradshaw, Jonathan, John Ditch et al. (1993): Support for Children. A Comparison of Arrangements in Fifteen Countries, Dept. of Social Security: Research Report No. 21, London.

Castles, Francis G. (ed.) (1993): Families of Nations. Patterns of Public Policies in Western Democracies, Aldershot: Dartmouth.

ESSPROS: European System of Integrated Social Protection Statistics, various years.

Federal Ministry for Social Affairs: Social Budget, Bonn, data from various years.

Lepsius, M. Rainer (1983): Die Bundesrepublik Deutschland in der Kontinuität und Diskontinuität historischer Entwicklungen, in: W. Conze and M.R. Lepsius (eds.), Sozialgeschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

Van Kersbergen, Kees (1995): Social Capitalism. A Study of Christian Democracy and the Welfare State, London, New York: Routledge.

Dr. Thomas Bahle
MZES, Research Department I
D-68131 Mannheim
Tel.: 0049(0)621-292-1706
Fax: 0049(0)621-292-1714

Thomas Bahle is sociologist and member of the family change and family policies project.