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Why European Countries Are Giving Teens Free Money To Spend on Books, Music, and Theater

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For a growing number of European citizens, coming of age now has the added perk of hundreds of euros to spend on culture—be that highbrow opera performances or action-packed comic books.

Earlier this month, Germany became the latest European country to announce a culture pass for youth to spend on books, theater trips, music, museums, and movies. All young people in Germany turning 18 in 2023—which is estimated to be around 750,000 people—will be eligible for the €200 ($208) pass. The credit will be available to use over a two-year period and citizens can make purchases via an app or website.

“My hope is that the KulturPass will make young people go out and experience culture, see how diverse and inspiring it is,” says Germany’s Culture Minister Claudia Roth, who championed the initiative. “They can see a pop concert, go to a museum, or watch a play. All of that is culture.”

Roth says the motivation behind the pass was two-fold. The first was in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which deprived young adults of cultural activities amid waves of lockdowns and school closures. But she says the second—and more long-term reason—is to provide further relief to Germany’s struggling arts sector.

In June 2020, the German government allocated €1 billion ($1.039 billion) in emergency aid for arts and culture as many stayed home because of COVID-19 restrictions, which was then topped up with a further €1 billion in February 2021. The culture pass is the product of an additional €100 million ($103.7 million) investment and could be followed by additional funds for 15- to 17-year-olds, if it proves successful.

“After two years of the pandemic, [and now] Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the implications it’s having on energy prices and inflation here in Germany, a lot of cultural institutions are struggling with empty seats, low numbers of visitors, an audience that is reluctant to come back,” says Roth. Now, she hopes the scheme will “kick start” a return to the cultural landscape and bring new audiences to national institutions.

Read More: Why TIME Devoted an Issue to the Impact of the Pandemic on the Next Generation

But Germany is not the first E.U. country to launch such an initiative.

In March, Spain announced its own €400 ($415) Youth Cultural Bonus for 18-year-olds to spend within a year on events and physical media. Similar to the German initiative, the vouchers aim to inject life back into the creative industries that have suffered under years of funding cuts and then the pandemic.

In a statement sent to TIME, a representative for the Spanish government said that the program seeks to “promote loyalty that generates the habit of consuming cultural products in young people so that, as adults, they continue to consume cultural products regularly.”

As many as 281,557 young Spanish nationals, as well as legal residents and refugees, were eligible for cultural aid at the time the €210 million ($217.7 million) project was launched.

The statement added that “inaugurating autonomy” among its young citizens was a key aspect of the initiative, which allows users to decide—within reason—how they spend the money. It has a €200 euro upper limit on live arts and a €100 cap on purchasing physical or digital products.

Both the German and Spanish culture ministries say they were inspired by the success of France’s culture-fund model, which was established by the nation’s Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak in May 2021. For over a year, French 18-year-olds have been eligible for a culture pass worth €300 ($312) to use within two years via an app that hosts cultural offerings from over 8,000 arts businesses and institutions.

As the New York Times observed, French teenagers were mostly drawn toward Japanese manga. Figures by the organization behind the Culture Pass app recorded that 75% of all purchases went toward books and two-thirds of book purchases were for manga, which is an incredibly popular form of media in France.

Some critics of the French pass dispute how much freedom teenagers should have over what they buy. “A kid from the projects will lean toward what he already knows. I can’t for one moment imagine a kid using the pass to go listen to Baroque opera,” Pierre Ouzoulias, a senator for the French Communist Party, told the New York Times.

But others say the passes, even when they are spent on mass media instead of highbrow arts, have lasting social merit by encouraging young people to have a lifelong relationship with culture. They don’t just “lessen young individuals’ budget constraints in cultural expenditure” but impact broader life “preferences and behaviors,” says Elisabetta Lazzaro, a cultural economist and professor at the University for the Creative Arts in England.

Manga purchases might not financially benefit French artists but French users have a €100 cap on online media offerings, which are provided by French companies, and any video games purchased must have a French publisher.

Indirectly, any further spending on culture could help boost one of Europe’s most important sectors. In 2019, the cultural and creative industries contributed €509 billion ($529 billion), or some 5.3%, to the E.U.’s total GDP, according to Culture Action Europe, a leading network of cultural groups.

The slate of new culture passes has precedent in Europe. The U.K. has universal free admission to national museums, while other countries such as Belgium have long boasted free tickets for under 18s and discounted culture tickets for students under 26. Meanwhile, Italy became the first European nation to establish a culture pass in 2016, worth €500 ($519).

Despite reported attempts by Italy’s populist leaders to scrap it in 2018, the fund has been upheld by the culture ministry across changes in government.

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Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com