Family Policy

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Family Policy

All social and economic policies affect families, but the term family policy usually refers to social programs, laws, and public directives designed to promote and enhance marriage, reproduction, and raising children. Family policy also ensures child protection and child and spousal support and attempts to resolve conflicts between work and family. The state usually initiates such policies, but employers or voluntary organizations may also establish them. Legislatures and governments that create laws and policy, as well as the agencies mandated and financed to enforce them, such as child welfare agencies, will be referred to as the state. This entry focuses on policies and social programs initiated by governments. It investigates how academics have studied these policies and how they have explained variations among nations.

Until the 1980s, many governments saw the family as the basic unit of social support and respected family privacy unless children were flagrantly neglected or abused, discipline problems were apparent, or parents were clearly impoverished. Nevertheless, the state in industrialized countries has regulated some aspects of family life for more than a century, requiring the registration of marriages, births, and deaths. It has also legalized marriage, adoption, and separation, and tried to ensure that men support their wives and children. The state has also provided income security and social services for families in need (Ursel 1992).

Many nations never develop social benefits for families because they cannot acquire sufficient fiscal resources or because their governments are too unstable to sustain the development of social programs. Developing nations often spend scarce public resources on defense or debt repayment, but may also provide retirement pensions for the army or civil service. Civilian families are expected to fend for themselves. Birth rates in less developed nations are typically high because many parents rely on their children to help support the family and to provide financial security for aging parents. Family policies often focus on reducing overpopulation, child malnutrition, infant and maternal mortality, and child labor, as well as finding homes for orphans and abandoned children.

Some industrialized countries have not developed explicit family policies because they cannot gain consensus about what the family is or how to encourage its development and cohesion. Two broad opinions exist among the lobby groups pressuring governments, especially in English-speaking countries. One contends that family structure and behavior reflect individual preferences as well as the trends and tensions in the broader society. Therefore, governments cannot easily modify personal behavior through social programs or legislation, but they need to acknowledge that parents make an important social contribution in producing children. Parents also need ongoing public support, especially when they raise children under difficult circumstances. The contrasting view is that the family is deteriorating and declining as the major institution in society. As a result, social legislation needs to bolster the family (or a preferred version of family) in the fight against the intrusion of alternative and unhealthful (or immoral) lifestyles. The political left, feminist organizations, and gay and lesbian groups express the first view; the second view is more prevalent among political and social conservatives and the Christian right.

Welfare State Development

From the 1940s to the 1970s, governments in industrialized countries developed a broad range of social programs to guarantee citizens and their families at least a minimal level of income in the event of unemployment, accidents, sickness, pregnancy, childbirth, disability, and retirement. The development of the welfare state was based on the assumption that governments (as well as employers, employees, and community groups) have a role to play in maintaining income security and well-being. Welfare states were also premised on the idea that governments should assist families at certain stages of life (such as childbirth and retirement) or during family crises (such as marital breakdown or disciplinary problems with children) (Baker and Tippin 1999).

Much of the theorizing and research about social policy relates to the development of welfare states. Postwar prosperity enabled many nations to establish or expand their social programs, although some created more generous programs than others. During the 1960s, many people expected welfare states to eliminate hunger and poverty, reinforce the social value of child rearing, and reward a lifetime of paid work or care giving. Yet widespread poverty and inequality continued to exist while government social expenditures increased throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The political consensus that supported generous social benefits in the 1960s began to fracture by the 1980s, especially in the English-speaking countries. Growing unemployment, marital instability, and an aging population increased the demand for social benefits. Conservative politicians and taxpayers, however, argued that the welfare state was ineffective and costly and would be unable to sustain itself financially.

Advocates of the welfare state have argued that social programs have prevented family poverty from worsening with declining job security and more lone mother families. Critics on the political left sometimes claim that welfare states have been less effective than they could be because most were designed to promote neither class equality nor gender equity. Instead, welfare states were often intended to supplement family income or prevent widespread hunger, which governments hoped would stave off social unrest. Critics from the political right argue that government benefits have enabled people to avoid paid work and family responsibilities, and that people should not be eligible for public benefits before they have first exhausted family resources. Debates continue about whether the state should try harder to assist families or whether families should be expected to show more responsibility for their own welfare.

Welfare Regimes

Political theorists have shown that social program development in different jurisdictions was based on varying assumptions about why some people need government assistance, how the state should help them, and how benefits and services are best delivered. In his well-known categorization of welfare states, Gösta Esping-Andersen (1990) argued that the history of strategic alliances between governments and influential interest groups shaped the development of welfare regimes. Welfare regimes are collective agreements about social programs (including services and benefits for families) that endure over time despite changes in government.

Esping-Andersen categorized nations such as the United States and Britain as liberal welfare regimes because they focus on individuals and assume that they should provide for their families through paid employment. These governments invest relatively low levels of public money into social programs and rely mainly on social assistance targeted to those without jobs or private resources. Benefits are financed through general taxation and set below the minimum wage to provide incentives to find jobs. Liberal welfare regimes emphasize efficiency rather than equity and individual responsibility rather than collective responsibility. Neoliberal regimes (such as the United States) pay benefits only to those considered deserving.

Esping-Andersen labeled nations such as Germany or Italy as corporatist welfare regimes because employers' groups, trade unions, and governments collectively developed social insurance programs to share the risk of income lost due to unemployment, disability, or sickness. These schemes are usually financed through payroll deductions from employees and employers (and sometimes matched with government contributions), and benefits are typically generous for contributors. Corporatist regimes are also called conservative because they are not designed to promote equality, but rather to stabilize employee incomes and contribute to social stability and cohesion for employers and governments.

Countries such as Sweden or Denmark have been called social democratic because they were designed to use taxes to redistribute income, to maintain full employment, and to prevent poverty. Social democratic welfare states offer benefits to individuals as citizenship rights and attempt to minimize inequalities. Esping-Andersen argued that variation among welfare regimes depends on such factors as the philosophy of the governing party and coalitions between powerful interest groups and political parties. This has been called the power resource theory, which is a widely accepted explanation of policy variation among nations, although its details have been criticized.

Feminist Critiques of Welfare Regimes

Feminist scholars, such as Ann Orloff (1993) and Diane Sainsbury (1996, 1999), generally accept the power resource theory. They argue, however, that the analysis of welfare state development by mainstream theorists such as Esping-Andersen has focused too much on men's activities, employment programs, and coalitions between governments and trade unions. They contend that women's groups, churches, and social reformers also contributed to the development of welfare states, especially to family-related programs (Ursel 1992; Pedersen 1993). By ignoring women's activities, those termed malestream theorists have misrepresented the history of social programs and created categorizations of social programs that are not always relevant to family policy. Feminist scholars argue that the power resource theory needs to be refined to incorporate the role of families and voluntary groups in providing for society. Also, women's unpaid caring work should not be ignored because it has upheld both labor market policies and social programs. Many researchers have noted large variations within Esping-Andersen's categories, especially for family policies.

Feminist scholars argue that women's access to benefits from social programs has been shaped more by assumptions about family roles and relationships than welfare regimes (Baker 1995; Lewis 1998; O'Connor, Orloff, and Shaver 1999). As wives and widows, women have often been eligible for relatively generous benefits through their husband's work-related entitlements (Sainsbury 1996). As lone mothers at home, women have been offered minimal support and subjected to moral scrutiny to ensure their eligibility. In contrast, men have typically received state benefits as breadwinners rather than fathers. Their work-related payments are often financed through social insurance and involve higher payments with less personal investigation. Increasingly, women employees are eligible for social insurance, but they receive lower benefits than men because payments are tied to their lower wages. Neither the liberal nor the corporatist welfare states has done much to help women as employees.

In contrast, social democratic countries have experienced some success in resolving conflicts between work and family for employed mothers and reducing family poverty. Social democratic countries have typically supported full employment for men and women and enforced pay equity, but they have also provided public childcare, parental benefits, and leave for family responsibilities to help parents integrate paid work and child-rearing. For example, Sweden has one of the lowest child poverty rates for lone parent families among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations, at 3 percent compared to about 53 percent in the United States and Australia (Baker and Tippin 1999, p. 22).

Many studies in family policy are based on historical research that indicates that state intervention has evolved over the years, but has been more intrusive for low-income families and mothers in liberal regimes. Social workers have been required to investigate the sexual circumstances and living conditions of lone mothers receiving social benefits, but such investigations would be considered an infringement of privacy for higher income families. The state has intervened most for visible minorities such as indigenous people, sometimes forcibly removing children from their families, placing them in residential schools, or encouraging adoption by white couples.

Although governments have granted more privacy to middle-class families, most researchers and social workers now agree that some aspects of family life should be considered public and of importance to governments. They argue that parents must be required (and helped) to support their children, and that the safety of children, women, and the elderly needs to be protected within the home. Laws must prevent siblings from reproducing together or fathers from raping their daughters. In addition, parents with dependent children (especially mothers) often require help to resolve the growing conflicts between employment and child raising.

Demographic Trends and Family Policy

The 1990s were marked by program cutbacks, the introduction of user fees, and tightened eligibility, especially in neoliberal states. Yet restructuring has been uneven; some programs have been cut while others have been retained or expanded. As more mothers became employed, most jurisdictions improved parental benefits and childcare subsidies. This led some researchers to focus on the demographic trends that provide the impetus for family policy reform, such as declining fertility and increasing maternal employment (Gauthier 1996; Kamerman and Kahn 1997).

Political responses to demographic change, however, can vary: Governments can provide public childcare or encourage the expansion of private childcare. Their programs can be gender-neutral or targeted specifically to women. How do governments decide on policy options? Power resource theorists argue that influential lobby groups and advisors persuade politicians that a particular demographic trend has political consequences and that a certain policy option is preferable. For this reason, family policy researchers investigate the political context of policy discussions, which interest groups are involved, how the debate is framed, which policy option is eventually chosen, and how program design affects the resolution of the social problem. Sometimes researchers find that policies lead to unintended consequences.

Family policy research often involves comparisons among nations (Bradshaw et al. 1996). Lone mothers and the postdivorce family are now the center of attention, especially welfare-to-work programs and policies about child custody and support. Family policy research tends to concentrate on sole mothers because their poverty rates are so high in liberal welfare regimes. When these mothers become employed, they tend to be overrepresented in low-paid jobs, but global labor markets are producing more of these jobs. The income gap is also growing between full-time and part-time workers, but family responsibilities make it difficult for some parents to work full-time without assistance. Family policies clearly need to address labor market issues such as pay equity, parental benefits, childcare services, and leave for family responsibilities.

Many governments now encourage or require beneficiaries to enter paid work sooner than they did in the past. Family policy research indicates that leaving welfare for work often involves taking some risks, such as leaving children with strangers or giving up health care subsidies or concession cards. Furthermore, paid work does not always guarantee a higher income than social benefits (Baker and Tippin 1999). Cross-national research indicates that at least for lone mothers, marriage to a male breadwinner ensures economic well-being more effectively than paid work (Hunsley 1997). States, however, cannot force lone mothers into marriage.

In countries such as Denmark and Italy, sole mothers tend to remain in the full-time workforce throughout their childbearing years, but in Australia and the Netherlands, governments pay sole mothers a benefit to care for their children at home, sometimes while they work part-time. Mothers may experience problems when they try to re-enter the workforce, especially with the growing competitiveness of job markets. Their problems are often exacerbated by workplace practices and assumptions within labor legislation and social programs, including the idea that employees can leave their family concerns at home and that they are of no relevance to employers or governments. These assumptions, as well as structural barriers such as lack of affordable childcare, make it difficult for mothers with young children to compete in the job market despite employability policies.

Redesigning Family Policy

Cross-national research clearly indicates that social programs can counteract the vagaries of labor markets, help to equalize the incomes of two-parent and one-parent families, and more effectively integrate family and employment (Gauthier 1993, 1996; Wennemo 1994). Yet in some jurisdictions, politicians and taxpayers object to prolonged income support and generous family services. Should current programs be maintained, cut back, or expanded to accommodate new family forms?

After the Great Depression of the 1930s, more citizens accepted the idea that individuals should not always be blamed if they were unemployed or poor, and that some beneficiaries have a better chance than others to become self-supporting. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, growing prosperity encouraged public endorsement of social programs and their expansion. Since then, more people applied for assistance with rising divorce rates and higher unemployment. Furthermore, lobby groups, such as feminists and gay and lesbian groups, argue that social programs must not favor the patriarchal nuclear family, which no longer represents the majority lifestyle. Indigenous people and new immigrants are still arguing that their extended families are ignored. More claims are being made on the welfare state while resources are shrinking.

Most researchers argue that despite economic globalization and the apparent lack of national control over some policy issues, politics matter within family policy. In other words, governments still have the power to develop family policies if they so choose. Research also confirms that family policies cannot be used to induce people to behave in ways that they feel are against their interests. Many factors influence the development of couples' relationships, reproductive behavior, and marital stability. Most governments acknowledge that effective family policies cannot counteract personal choice, labor market forces, or prevailing public opinion, but need to work with them.

Governments in industrialized nations have tried to strengthen families, but they have found new policies difficult to establish, costly, sometimes ineffective, and always controversial. Left-wing groups and those who applaud new family forms are suspicious of the call for a family policy because they fear that it could represent a conservative agenda opposing gender equity and personal choice. The political right argues that new programs are expensive and reward the undeserving poor. Creating policies that integrate these two opposing viewpoints has been challenging.

Contemporary governments have therefore focused on less controversial programs and policies: those that assist infant and maternal well-being, that protect women and children from violence, and that enable lone parents to raise infants and toddlers. Most governments have avoided efforts to alter sexual practices, encourage couples to have more children, or reduce reproductive rights. These issues are considered too difficult for governments to influence. To summarize, governments can help maintain family incomes, support healthy child-rearing practices, assist marital partners to stabilize their relationships, and reduce conflicts between work and family. How much public money is invested in these efforts depends on the ideology of the government and the relative power of various lobby groups.

See also:Childcare; Childhood; Childlessness; Children's Rights; Failure to Thrive; Family Values; Grandparents' Rights; Great Britain; New Zealand; Poverty; Retirement; Sexual Orientation; Single-Parent Families; Unemployment


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maureen baker

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Family Policy

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