The Politics of Unequal Childcare Expansion: An Illustration of the German Case

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy by Erik Neimanns. Click here to access the article.

In their manifestos for the 2021 federal election in Germany, the two major parties of the center-right and center-left, the Christian Democratic CDU/CSU and the Social Democratic SPD, promise to expand the provision of quality early childhood education and care. This positional agreement between two political parties from different ideological traditions hardly seems surprising anymore in an increasingly post-industrial society where dual-earner models and paid employment of mothers with small children have become widespread. A legal entitlement to childcare exists for children above one since 2013, enacted under a conservative family minister, Ursula von der Leyen. According to public opinion data from 2014, more than 60 per cent of individuals across income groups supported expanding public childcare spending at that time. 

However, parties’ programmatic consensus to expand childcare is difficult to reconcile with practice in Germany (just as in most other affluent Western democracies). Levels of childcare provision for children below three often continue to be insufficient, and  lower-income families often face substantial and persistent difficulties in accessing childcare. These difficulties are related to factors such as prohibitively high levels of parental fees, or loose public regulation of admission criteria, and they manifest in families from higher income or educational backgrounds being substantially overrepresented among the users of childcare. When childcare expansion in Germany picked up speed after 2005, social inequality in enrolment actually increased. Enrolment of families with a relatively high education background increased strongly whereas it stagnated among families with a low education background.

How can we make sense of cross-partisan support to expand childcare provision on the one hand and persistent social inequalities in access to childcare on the other? In my article I argue that although broad popular majorities may be supportive of childcare expansion, the way these preferences translate into politics is likely to be socially biased, potentially contributing to social inequalities in childcare use. 

Based on an analysis of a large-scale public opinion survey conducted in 2014 in eight European countries, I find that individual preferences to expand childcare matter for political behaviour. Support for additional public childcare spending translates into a higher likelihood to vote for left-wing parties that have often, though not always, been more ambitious in their plans to expand childcare.

However, I also find that this link from childcare preferences to voting behaviour is socially biased. For individuals in the lowest income groups, childcare preferences are hardly associated with vote choice. The impact of childcare spending support on vote choice increases with income, contributing to a higher likelihood to vote for left-wing and a lower likelihood to vote for center-right parties (Figure 1, left panel).

Figure 1. Average marginal effects of supporting additional public childcare spending on vote invention for left and centre-right parties

Note: Average marginal effects and 95 percent confidence intervals based on multinomial logistic regressions. Data source: Inveduc (2014; N=6,872; for Germany, N=1,243). In the left panel, left parties include social democratic, green/ecological, and communist/socialist parties; center-right parties include Christian democratic and conservative parties.

This finding implies that if parties aim to maximize votes, in designing childcare expansion they may appeal in particular to those groups that connect their vote choice most tightly to their preferences towards childcare, i.e. more affluent individuals. The absent link between preferences and voting among individuals from the lower income groups might explain why frequently, expansive childcare reforms have been targeted to the needs of the middle classes and why the question of unequal access to childcare has often been neglected.

In how far does this finding from a cross-national analysis apply to the German case? The right panel in Figure 1 replicates the analysis for Germany. It reveals that the German case does not fully conform to the cross-national pattern discussed above (due to data limitations, only the CDU/CSU and the SPD can be considered here). With regard to vote intentions for the centre-right, similarly to the cross-country results, voters in the upper-middle of the income distribution (the fourth income quintile) that are interested in childcare expansion have been less likely to vote for the CDU/CSU. However, for the left we see that vote intentions for the SPD have depended most strongly on childcare preferences for voters in the second income quintile. For this income group, support to expand childcare spending has been associated with an increase in the likelihood to vote for the SPD by about 10 percentage points. 

Does this finding imply that the SPD could be more attentive to the childcare policy priorities of their lower-income constituencies? In this regard, there is indeed one important difference between the CDU/CSU and the SPD in the parties’ approaches to childcare expansion, which is also reflected in their 2021 manifestos: while the CDU/CSU does not mention the issue of childcare fees, the SPD aims to abolish fees. Over the recent years, several SPD-led subnational Länder governments have already taken steps in this direction (Bertelsmann Stiftung 2021). 

In the remainder of this contribution, I briefly examine recent trends in the implementation of  childcare expansion at the local level in Germany to get a better sense of to what extent partisan differences may actually matter for social inequality in childcare enrolment. The left panel in Figure 2 shows childcare coverage rates for children under three at the local level and how they changed, depending on whether local governments (mayors of larger cities and Landräte) were led by the SPD or the CDU/CSU. Data is for 2012, the year before the legal entitlement to childcare was introduced, and 2017, the most recent data available. On average, partisanship hardly mattered for childcare expansion. Enrolment increased by 4.85 percentage points, irrespective of left (4.89) or right (4.82) political majorities.

Figure 2. Childcare coverage rates (2012 and 2017) and share of enrolled children with foreign origin (2016 and 2019) by local government partisanship

Note: Data is for children under three. Data comes from INKAR (INKAR), Ländermonitor Frühkindliche Bildung (Bertelsmann Stiftung 2021), and Kommunales Wahllexikon (Bremer et al. 2021). Only Western German cities and district administrations (Landkreise) without partisan change in government (mayors and Landräte) between 2012 and 2019 considered (N=204).

Larger partisan differences become apparent when taking inequalities in childcare enrolment into account. To do this, I examine changes in the enrolment shares of children with at least one parent being of foreign origin. Migration background is associated with a lower position in the income distribution in Germany, and it is associated with various additional barriers in access to childcare . Children with a migration background have been substantially underrepresented in childcare in Germany with an enrolment rate of 20 per cent for those under three as compared to 41 per cent for children without migration background (for children above three, enrolment rates have been at 82 and 99 per cent, respectively; DESTATIS 2019).

While the enrolment share of of children with foreign origin increased on average by 1.43 percentage points between 2016 and 2019, this increase has been 44 per cent larger in areas with more left-leaning political majorities (1.79 vis-à-vis 1.25 percentage points; right panel in Figure 2). This difference holds when controlling for the potential influence of changes in the share of non-national citizens, population density, GDP, or public debt. In areas with SPD-led local governments, childcare expansion on average has been associated with more egalitarian enrolment, as proxied here by changes in enrolment shares of children with foreign origin. Nevertheless, as Figure 2 also shows, substantial variation in changes in enrolment shares exists that is not explained by partisan majorities and that would require further examination.

To sum up, while in Germany, as in other Western countries, voters and parties of different ideological backgrounds have become supportive of childcare expansion, we nevertheless observe important partisan differences in the politics of childcare expansion. As I argue in this contribution, these differences may reflect how voter preferences regarding childcare expansion translate into vote choice. With the strength of the preference-voting nexus often increasing with income, it should not be taken for granted that an expansion of childare provision necessarily implies a reduction of existing social inequalities in access to childcare. To implement the “right to high quality childcare” for “all children”, however, parties at all levels of government would need to engage in tackling the remaining barriers in access to childcare for socio-economically disadvantaged families.


About the author

Erik Neimanns is postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne. His research focuses on the politics of education, social, and economic policymaking.

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