Should mothers work or stay at home? This question is being hotly debated in the run-up to a nationwide vote on families. At stake here, says one political scientist, is “an old romantic view”, which is out of touch with today’s realities.
Voters are due to cast their ballots on November 24 on a popular initiative by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party which calls for tax breaks for parents with children at home to be "at least equivalent" to those for parents using daycare.
Opposed by all other main parliamentary parties, except a sizable minority of the centre-right Christian Democrats, the initiative still managed to get a surprising approval rating of 64% – a 24% lead over opponents – in an opinion poll carried out by the GfS Bern research institute in early October.
But by the beginning of November, this lead had shrunk to 6% – a result of opponents mobilising their forces.
They argue that the initiative would only serve to promote the traditional family model, keeping mothers at home. But supporters say that if the initiative is accepted, mothers would be free to choose whether to keep on working or stay at home full-time.
An analysis carried out by political scientist Michael Hermann for the SonntagsZeitung shows marked differences across Switzerland concerning working mothers.
The percentage of mothers who are homemakers is 25.1% in German-speaking Switzerland and 19.7% in French-speaking Switzerland. The proportion of mothers working full-time or almost full-time (70% and above) is 24.4% in German-speaking Switzerland and 41.1% in French-speaking Switzerland.
In Italian-speaking Ticino the figure is 37.1% for stay-at-home mothers and 26.4% for mothers working 70% or more.
(Source: Michael Hermann, sotomo)
At first glance, the strong approval in the earlier poll would suggest a trend towards the traditional family model.
There has been a notable return to tradition and conservative values and images in the last few years, said François Höpflinger, professor of sociology at the University of Zurich, in an interview published in the Tages-Anzeiger and Der Bund newspapers.
But for political scientist Michael Hermann, “the talk has become more conservative, but social realities have become more progressive”.
“The figures speak for themselves: divorces are still on the rise, women are waiting longer to have their first child and the proportion of working mothers and women with higher education continues to increase. Housewives are in the minority,” he told swissinfo.ch.
It was true, however, that what counted among the population was not just working women and modern family models, he observed.
The traditional model is not considered totally outdated, even if in reality “we are getting further and further away from that model. . . .There is still a positive attitude to children being looked after by their mothers,” Hermann said.
Families and federalism
In Switzerland most family policy issues are the domain of cantonal and to some extent local governments. The federal government has very limited room to manoeuvre here and only gets involved in integrating and promoting solutions.
As a result, different aspects of family policy are regulated in very different ways. The differences have been further accentuated by the big changes in society in recent decades and the strong divergences among the political parties on family policy issues.
The proposal on granting equal tax relief to parents who do not use daycare, which will come to a vote on November 24, is already in operation in two cantons – Valais and Zug.
An attempt to increase the federal government’s ability to manoeuvre in matters of family policy failed on March 3, 2012, due to the workings of the federal system itself. The majority of voters (54.3%) had approved a constitutional change that would have required the federal government and the cantons to promote the compatibility of work and family. But the proposal did not win a majority of the cantons: 15 rejected it, while the other 11 (Basel City and Basel Country, Zurich, Solothurn and all the non-German-speaking cantons) accepted it.
Germany and France
This is especially the case in German-speaking Switzerland. Indeed, in German-speaking countries in general there was still “the old romantic view of the child needing its mother” as well as the notion that children in daycare were being “neglected”, Hermann said.
French-speaking Switzerland, on the other hand, is influenced by France, “where there is a long tradition of women in the workforce and therefore having children cared for by others is considered normal”.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Germany is also undergoing a similar debate on the family, as proposals put forward by the centre-right CSU very much resemble the Swiss initiative, Hermann pointed out.
But whatever the result of the Swiss vote on November 24, Höpflinger believes that little will change in society. “I do not believe that young people are thinking of tax breaks when they start a family. And certainly no woman will give up a job because of this. There will be no return to patriarchal structures,” he said.
The University of Neuchâtel’s François Hainard also thinks a change is unlikely. “The Swiss economy needs people working. Women study and want to put their skills to use. A second income is often crucial for financial reasons. We live in a consumer society in which everyone wants to maintain a certain lifestyle. Anyway, having both parents is no longer the rule,” the sociologist told the newspaper Le Temps.
The debate on family policy is not likely to come to an end on November 24. Another two initiatives on the family put forward by the Christian Democrats have been filed and will probably come to a vote towards the end of next year. One proposes making the child allowance tax free and the other aims to boost the tax status of married couples.
In addition, Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf recently announced in an interview with the newspaper SonntagsBlick that her ministry is looking at a change to the system of child tax breaks, which would be replaced by government payments. The draft is to be presented to parliament next year.
“The debate on the family is strongly linked to the debate on the state of the middle class, which bears many burdens and has been losing ground,” Hermann said.
“Basically, the middle class has been important to all parties. But only in the last few years has the awareness developed in the political arena that having children is also a financial risk for middle-class families.”