Family Policy in Western Societies

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The dramatic growth in the industrial capacities and economic power of the United States and the countries of Western Europe since World War II has demonstrably improved the per capita income and quality of life of the average citizen in these countries. Based on such indicators as available health services, declining death rates, unemployment protection, and retirement benefits, it is reasonable to infer that, more than at any other time in human history, the majority of the people in these countries are assured that they can obtain the basic elements necessary for their survival and the survival of their families. Moreover, their quality of life, as measured by education, availability and quality of housing, ownership of automobiles and other durable goods, and available leisure time, suggests a lifestyle heretofore reserved only for the rich.

It is ironic that this unparalleled affluence has been accompanied by fundamental changes in family structure and family relationships—changes that challenge our basic conceptions of how families are organized and function. Marital stability and the size of the birthrate are common indicators of family health (Kittrie 1997). Over the early 1970s, virtually all the highly industrialized countries have experienced accelerating increases in divorce, decreased family size, increases in pregnancies among unmarried women, and an increase in childless marriages. Unlike many Third World countries, where population is growing at a rapid rate, birthrates in Western countries are below the level of population replacement (see Van de Kaa 1987 for Western Europe; Sweet and Bumpass 1987 for the United States). According to Census Bureau data, the American family reached its smallest size in 1990.

There is general agreement among family scholars that these changes are due, at least in part, to the expanding number of married women in the labor force. In 1920, about 9 percent of the families in the United States included wives who were employed outside the home (Hayghe 1990, p. 14). By 1987 the number of dual-earner families outnumbered families in which the husband was the only breadwinner by two to one (Lerner 1994). This situation does not change appreciably when children enter the family. Labor-force participation for married women with children under the age of six increased from 18.6 percent of all married women in 1960 to 63.6 percent in 1997. For married women with children between the ages of six and thirteen, the rate peaked in 1997 at 76.5 percent. Similar data exist for countries in Western Europe. Haavio-Mannila and Kauppinen (1990) note that full-time homemaking has almost disappeared in the Nordic countries. These changes have had a direct impact on the division of labor in the family and an indirect effect on marital-role relationships. Closely linked to women's growing labor-market activity is the fact that they are making better use of the educational opportunities available to them. There is evidence that educational achievement is converging for males and females in most of the Western world (HaavioMannila 1988).

As both educational and occupational career opportunities increase for women, there is a tendency to delay marriage. In the United States, the median age for first marriage peaked in 1996 for men (27.1 years) and in 1997 for women (25.0 years). Moreover, with growing educational equality and an increased ability to compete effectively for jobs in markets that value the skills obtained through education, the time such women spend raising children becomes more costly, both economically and psychologically (Sweet and Bumpass 1987). The result is fewer children per family and less time spent in parent–child interaction in those families with offspring (Lerner 1994).

These changes have altered marital and parental roles in families. Sweet and Bumpass (1987), describing the situation for U.S. families, claim that although husbands have made only a modest contribution to sharing household duties, they can no longer claim the role of "breadwinner." The conception of the prototypical family as consisting of a legally married husband and wife living together for a lifetime, raising children in a household managed by the wife and mother and financially supported by the husband and father, is anachronistic. Indeed, such family structures constitute less than 7 percent of families in the United States (Lerner 1994).

Many scholars regard this decline in traditional family structures with considerable alarm. The decline is associated with values that emphasize individualistic and self-oriented goals over family well-being and, by extension, concern for others in the community. It is argued that these values lead to social isolation, growing levels of interpersonal distrust, and the the involvement by individuals in an endless and empty search for gratification (Elshtain 1997).

Other scholars, though not sanguine about the human problems created by these changes, tend to consider them as inevitable consequences of increased individual opportunity and freedom. Such freedom can only occur when developed societies establish equality between the sexes and underwrite the financial and social risks of illness, job loss, and aging. To the extent that greater individual autonomy and freedom of opportunity are gained at the cost of stable family relations, that cost should be borne (Myrdal 1967). Most important, those who look positively upon these changes point with approval to the changing role of women. The increased participation of women in the labor force in all industrialized countries has increased women's freedom to choose their own lifestyles, both in the world of work and in the family (Lerner 1994). If changes in family structure contribute to greater equality and greater opportunities for women to achieve their full potential, then, it is argued, society as a whole benefits (Lanca 1997).

Interestingly, people on both sides of the debate tend to define themselves as pro-family. Virtually everyone seems to acknowledge the social importance of the family in caring for and socializing children. There is also a perception of the family as a sanctuary that provides its members with protection, affection, and succor in what is often a hostile and, generally, impersonal environment. For the most part, advocates of both perspectives accept as problematic the fact that, increasingly, families fail to carry out these functions. The high divorce rate, single-parent households, teenage pregnancy, and domestic violence are disturbing components in modern family life, and there is general agreement that something should be done about these problems. There is a consensus in all the advanced industrialized countries that the family is a proper concern of public policy. There are, however, fundamental differences in the conceptions of what that policy should be, what institutions or groups should be responsible for implementing policy, and what types of families or individuals should be the targets of such policy.

A conservative movement seeks to reverse the trends discussed above by shoring up the traditional family. They advocate reinforcing the importance of legal marriages, making divorce more difficult, emphasizing parental responsibility for the care and protection of children, and, more generally, strengthening the family by protecting it from government intrusions. Governments, from this perspective, should be restrained from taking over responsibilities that "rightfully" belong to the family. In this view, only limited indirect support in the form of tax relief or tax credits to help families care for their dependent members and to make homeownership easier are considered appropriate forms of government involvement (Carlson 1988). Advocates of restricting government involvement maintain that families, if left alone, would function quite well. Some critics of government involvement in family life argue for the privatization of most social services geared toward helping families. The essential claim is that privately organized and funded services to families would be more efficient and would protect the right of the family to make choices for itself (Brodkin and Young 1989).

Related to this position is the argument that a weakening of the family can be attributed to constitutional neglect—a failure to define and protect the status of the family as a publicly recognized institution (Kittrie 1997). Additionally, it is argued that contemporary social policy emphasizes individualistic interests rather than family concerns, thus reducing the family to a contractual arrangement rather than a socially recognized institution.

At the other extreme there are those who believe that the appropriate role of government is to assist the family in maximizing individual potential for each family member. They maintain that, in democratic societies, government should mediate among various interest groups, each seeking its own advantages. Only the government, responsible to the electorate, is in a position to protect the public interest. Far from weakening the family, the government, it is argued, is the only institution in a position to use its resources to support and strengthen families and their members. This is especially true for families with children living under current conditions of rapid social change. Thus, it is argued that "social and demographic changes have combined to diminish the likelihood that families can assure their children's healthy growth and development without help from outside the family" (Schorr et al. 1986).

Some have maintained that the question of government intervention is a moot point, since governments (as political entities) serve the purposes of their most influential constituencies. For example, they point to government tax incentives to assist businesses, the building of highways in the 1950s to benefit the automobile industry, and the government's readiness to come to the aid of large corporations, banks, and savings and loan associations during times of crisis. In brief, for many observers, the notion of "minimalist government"—the ideal advocated in the rhetoric of the Reagan administration in the 1980s—is not a reality in any modern country (Kahn and Kamerman 1975). The real question is not whether government should come to the aid of its citizens, but which citizens will be the beneficiaries of such aid.

William J. Wilson's (1987) answer to the question is that government services should be as universal as possible. Rather than limiting services to crisis intervention and emergencies or providing aid just to the disadvantaged, public services should be expanded to cover all citizens. Wilson maintains that only when public programs serve all segments of a society will it be possible to prevent system breakdowns and integrate all elements as productive members of the society.

The disagreements about what is appropriate family policy are so basic that it is hard to identify "objective" investigations or investigators. Policy implies advocacy, and advocacy implies bias. As a consequence, debates circle around such fundamentals as what is meant by the phrase family policy; indeed, there is disagreement on what is meant by family. Consider the following three definitions: (1) "The family is a society limited in members but nonetheless a true society, anterior to every state or nation, with rights and duties of its own, wholly independent of the commonwealth" (Pope Leo XIII, quoted in Strong and DeVault 1989, p. 6). (2) "The family consists of two or more persons living together and related by blood, marriage or adoption" (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1990). (3) "One or more adults related by blood, marriage, or affiliation who cooperate economically, share a common dwelling place, and may rear children" (Strong and DeVault 1996, p. 15). Note that definition (1) places the family as independent and free from the state. By implication, what goes on in the family is none of the government's business. Definition (2) restricts the family to shared residence and formal kin ties determined by blood or legal marriage, whereas definition (3), by introducing the vague term affiliation, is intended to include under the family label such "family" forms as cohabiting families and gay and lesbian families.

Still other definitions point to the fact that families need not always reside in the same household to maintain familial bonds and obligations, suggesting that emotional ties may be more salient than biological ties when defining family. A recent public opinion poll found that only 22 percent of respondents defined the American family in terms of blood, marriage, or adoption (Footlick 1990).

Those who define the family as the Census Bureau does are more likely to advocate policies that support only households whose members are linked through legally defined ties of kinship. Those who adhere to definition (3), on the other hand, are more likely to advocate government recognition of and assistance to different kinds of heterosexual and same-sex unions formed only by the consent of the participants without any state recognition or sanction. Adherents of definitions (1) or (2) are more likely to maintain that governmental aid to some of the groups that fit definition (3) is not aid to families but a major contribution toward the declining significance of the family in modern life (Kittrie 1997).

Despite disagreements concerning an adequate definition, some shared understanding of what is meant by "family" is necessary to provide a referent for the discussion that follows. The working definition provided below is designed to incorporate essential elements that make up most definitions. It is, however, not likely to satisfy staunch advocates of any particular policy orientation. The family is defined here as any group of individuals who are bound together by publicly acknowledged and socially sanctioned kinship ties. The key to this definition is in the concept of kinship. Kinship is a special type of social relationship determined by ancestry, marriage, and adoption. In every society certain kin have designated duties toward and responsibilities for other members of the kin group. These responsibilities are obligatory; the only way an individual can free himor herself from such obligations is by ceasing to be kin, a difficult, if not impossible, task. These obligations tend to be lifelong. For key kin the obligations can pertain to virtually all physical and emotional needs of family members. For example, in modern industrial societies parents are expected not only to care for their children's physical needs but to provide them with love and affection and to prepare them to function effectively in the real world. Failure to do so can result in severe sanctions against the parent. Thus all Western industrialized countries have laws designed to require that parents provide financial support and care for their children, even if the husband and wife are separated. Each country also has laws designed to sanction parents for physically abusing or neglecting their minor children. Similar obligations accrue as a consequence of marriage. Formal marriages are legal entities sanctioned by the state (and often the church), and violations of the marital agreement are monitored and adjudicated by reference to secular laws, sacred laws, or both.

Whereas the care, nurturance, and socialization of children continue to be the responsibility of parents, the care of aging parents by adult children is becoming less common. Social Security and retirement pensions, national health programs, and public support for housing for the elderly have been introduced in all highly industrialized countries. As these programs increase, family obligations tend to decline.

The tendency toward declining family responsibility for its members extends beyond care for the elderly. Over the years, as modes of production have changed, the family has gradually relinquished responsibility for providing either employment or occupational training for its members.

The family is no longer directly responsible for formal and religious education, and, more recently, responsibility for child care has tended to be relegated to nonfamily institutions. As the family gives up these functions to the workplace, schools, and churches, its relative power and influence on the economic and political life of the society diminishes. The issue thus becomes whether public policy, established and administered by agents of the governmental or economic segments of society, should be used to assist this weakened institution. More specifically, the question arises whether public services in the form of health care, housing, unemployment insurance, support for education, maternity benefits, support for child care, and so forth help to strengthen the family in its remaining responsibility for the care, nurturance, and socialization of its members or further weaken it by making family members dependent on nonfamily sources for benefits and social support. This is the key question surrounding the debate over what is a proper family policy in the Western world.

The term policy, like family, is burdened with multiple meanings and definitions. It has been variously described as the means for focusing on fundamental problems of individuals in relation to societies (Lasswell 1968), a set of decisions designed to support an agreed-upon course of action (Zimmerman 1988), or as governmental goals (Dumon and Aldous 1979). Thus the different definitions have covered the gamut, from means to process to goals. Kahn's (1969) conception of policy incorporates these elements within a context that gives it specific meaning. He refers to policy as "the general guide to action, the cluster of overall decisions relevant to the achievement of the goal, the guiding principles, the standing plan" (p. 131). Thus, a definition that seems to have some consensual meaning would hold that policy is a commitment to action that utilizes a consciously designated strategy designed to attain specified goals.

Although some writers insist that the term policy is applicable only to governmental action, the more general view is that any actor, whether an individual or a large collectivity, can make and implement policy (Zimmerman 1988). What is important, and the source of considerable debate, is the fit between the policy goals and the actor's ability to implement those goals. For example, individual families of moderate means are not likely, by themselves, to be able to implement a policy for attaining high-standard, low-cost day care for their children; conversely, neither national governments nor national corporations are likely to be able effectively to develop policies for resolving neighborhood conflicts between ethnic groups. The difficulty is not only in matching appropriate levels of scale (e.g., community problems are best solved by community organizations); it also lies in the actor's ability to bring the right resources to bear on a given problem. This requires access to relevant information, the ability to recruit appropriate personnel, and control over the appropriate resources. The debate about family policy generally focuses on three primary issues: goals, the strategies designed to attain those goals, and the appropriate agencies for implementing these strategies. The sharpest differences concerning these issues are apparent at the national level.

The differences among policy goals, strategies, and designated agents are most evident when we compare the approach to family policy in the United States with the industrialized nations of Western Europe. As noted earlier, the United States shares many of the same family problems with these countries. The solutions offered in the form of public policy, however, differ considerably. The United States, often referred to as the "reluctant welfare state," has tended to be less forthcoming than the European countries in providing funds or services for its families or individuals. Moreover, there has been a strong inclination to have agencies other than government administer and implement social programs. America's revolutionary history has left its citizens with a pervasive distrust of government; rather than viewing government as a source of aid and assistance to its people, they often consider it a threat capable of usurping individual freedom and autonomy (Schorr 1979). Where the family is considered, this fear of government is enhanced by the tradition in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence of noninterference in family life (Glendon 1989).

Differences in approach to family policy in the United States and Western Europe are also affected by the different cultural, racial, and ethnic compositions of the various countries. For example, despite the recent immigration of foreign workers to European countries such as West Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden, no European country approximates the United States in its ethnic and racial heterogeneity. Whereas minorities make up between 6 and 7 percent of the population of countries like West Germany and Sweden, the nonwhite and Hispanic minorities in the United States represent 20 percent of the population (Statistical Abstract of Sweden 1990; Statistisches Jahrbuch fur die Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1989; U.S. Bureau of the Census 1990).

Also important are the differences between the countries in the extent to which governments are centralized and can make policy at the national level. With the exception of Switzerland, the Western European countries tend to be more centralized. This makes it possible to have a meaningful national debate about the pros and cons of a national family policy. Such a debate in the United States is less conclusive, principally because decision-making power on such an issue is distributed among federal, state, and local governments (Dumon and Aldous 1979).

These factors tend to contribute to one incontrovertible fact: The United States has less legislation directly concerned with assisting families and provides less financial support designated to aid families than any other advanced Western industrial society (Kahn and Kamerman 1983; Kittrie 1997).

Americans have been more reluctant than Europeans to pass legislation that might be interpreted as violating the sanctity and the privacy of the family. Legislators in most European countries seem willing to write laws designed to protect the child's safety, health, and psychological well-being without great concern that such legislation might interfere with family prerogatives (Glendon 1989). Although the reluctance of the U.S. courts to venture into the family domain is gradually changing, especially in the areas of child-support enforcement and prevention of domestic violence, they have moved much more slowly and reluctantly in this area than their counterparts in the Scandinavian countries, France, the Netherlands, and West Germany. It would be unheard of, for example, for courts or legislatures in the United States to follow the Swedish example and forbid parents to spank their children (Davis 1997).

Although divorce is a common condition in all the Western developed countries, the United States and England have been hesitant to interfere in the financial arrangements resulting from divorce on behalf of the children involved. This is not the case in the Nordic countries or in continental Europe, where, according to Glendon (1989), there is "genuine judicial supervision of the spouses' financial arrangements for children: mechanisms to ensure that child support is fixed at realistic and fair levels; highly efficient collection systems; 'maintenance advance systems' in which the state not only collects unpaid child support, but partially absorbs the risk of non-payment of advancing support up to a fixed amount in cases of default" (pp. 236–237).

The available data indicate that, with the possible exception of Social Security benefits for the elderly, the United States is not as generous as most of the European countries with regard to funding programs designed to assist families (Kahn and Kamerman 1983). This is most apparent when we consider families with children. The United States has tended to limit its assistance to such programs as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which was geared toward providing financial aid to single-parent families living below the poverty line. Some additional assistance is provided to poor families through food stamps (unique to the United States) and, in the short run, unemployment insurance. Financial assistance to all families with children generally takes the form of a standard income tax deduction of $2,700 for each dependent child. For families whose income is below $10,000 an earned income credit is provided.

Most of the countries of Western Europe, on the other hand, provide direct cash payments to families for each child. These payments are taxfree and serve as family income supplements. The per-child payments tend to increase with increased family size. Funds are also provided to assist families during the childbearing phase in the form of direct grants to cover income loss and preand postnatal medical care (Kamerman and Kahn 1981).

The Nordic states and Western continental Europe also provide direct housing assistance for both rental and homeownership payments. Housing allowances generally decrease as income rises, thus providing an income leveling mechanism in these countries (Herrstrom 1986). Unlike the U.S. policy of tax deductions for interest paid on mortgages, which benefit better-off families, the European housing allowances tend to favor lowerincome families (Kahn and Kamerman 1983; Herrstrom 1986).

In addition to these direct income-transfer programs, many of the countries in Western Europe provide a variety of benefits designed to assist families with the child-rearing challenges associated with both parents' working outside the home. Sweden, for example, provides a guaranteed pregnancy leave as well as a nine-month parental leave at 90 percent of salary and an additional three months at a flat rate (Lerner 1994). Austria, Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands have policies of at least three months of paid leave at 100 percent salary. Denmark and France have policies of at least sixteen weeks at 90 percent of salary, and Finland has a policy of eleven months at 80 percent of salary (Lerner 1994). Efforts are underway in Finland to extend this type of parental leave to three years. In the Nordic countries parents during the first three years of a child's life can choose to obtain state support for one parent to remain home with the child or to use the funds for daycare services. By comparison, the Family Support Act, passed in 1988 in the United States, renewed the requirement that a proportion of mothers receiving public assistance find employment (Michel 1998). At the same time, efforts to pass universal child-care legislation failed. Until January 1993, the United States was the only industrialized nation without a national parental leave policy (Lerner 1994).

Regardless of the merits of the American and European approaches to family policy, one significant current fact differentiates family conditions in the United States from those in the developed countries of continental Europe: In 1993, 40.1 percent of children under age six living in the United States were poor (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1994). This high level of poverty in the midst of affluence has produced a growing sense of despair and hopelessness concerning the life chances of these children. Miller (1990) summarizes the available data as follows: "Many studies have documented the much poorer health status of poor and minority children, the greater rates of child abuse, the higher incidence of injuries and death attributable to violence and crime, high rates of illiteracy, teenage pregnancy, educational failure and school dropouts." He goes on to note that the communities in which these children live are more dangerous, the schools are less adequate, and the rates of drug abuse are higher than in the general population. A sizable proportion of these children, but by no means all, are African American Hispanic, or Native American. The majority live in female-headed, single-parent families, a phenomenon increasingly referred to as the "feminization of poverty" in the United States.

Thus, the essential issue concerning family policy for Americans is inextricably linked with the questions of poverty and what to do about it. The fact that this situation does not exist in the advanced countries of Europe (with the possible exception of the United Kingdom) raises the inevitable question whether the family policies of these "welfare states" have anything to offer Americans in their search for solutions to the problem of family poverty.

It will come as no surprise that expert opinion on this issue is greatly divided. Differences exist even among those who usually share the same ideological perspective. Some who are concerned with providing greater equality in our society advocate programs such as those in Western Europe. Wilson (1987, p. 149) refers to such programs as "universal programs of reform," that is, programs that provide services for all citizens rather than earmarking aid for just minorities or the poor. The advantages of such programs are that since all citizens benefit, there is no stigma attached to being a recipient and no resentment among nonrecipients that taxes are being spent to benefit others.

This position is not universally shared even among those committed to egalitarian solutions. Some feel strongly that massive resources must be put into play to assist only those families at the greatest risk of being trapped in an abyss of poverty and hopelessness (Schorr 1988).

Predictably, those more concerned with issues of freedom than equality have argued that the problem of poverty in the United States is not the result of inadequate public services but rather is a consequence of such services. According to Carlson (1988), the "matriarchal welfare state has produced family disruptive results" and the "poverty crisis, the ageism crisis, the teen pregnancy crisis, the overpopulation crisis, the juvenile delinquency crisis, the eugenics crisis, the child abuse crisis, the youth suicide crisis" have all contributed to expanding the power of the state at the expense of the family (p. 273). Charles Murray (1984) compiled an impressive amount of data that purports to illustrate that public services designed to reduce poverty in the United States were ineffectual. Murray's data have been challenged by a number of investigators, and the ensuing debate reaffirms the difficulty in interpreting data relevant to this issue in ways that are free of bias. The difficulty is that socioeconomic conditions change so rapidly that it is not likely that any single factor can or should be justified as constituting the cause for poverty.

Whatever the causes, poverty is a reality in the United States, and, increasingly, the discrepancies in the distribution of wealth in this country demand the attention of policy makers (Phillips 1990). It also seems apparent that, given the ubiquity of the family in social life, any policy regarding poverty must also be a policy pertaining to families. Whether that policy will be concerned with all families or just the poor remains to be seen; whether it will be a national policy or policies instigated and implemented at the state levels, and whether its funding will be in the form of direct grants or tax benefits and incentives, is also hard to predict. It is likely, however, given American traditions and the deep differences that exist within the country about family policy, that the eventual solutions and compromises reached will be different from those that have evolved in Europe. Nevertheless, in this world of instant communication and visibility, the state of the family in Europe and the resources available to European families must have an impact on the policy decisions made in the United States.

(see also: Alternative Life styles; American Families; Family Law; Family Planning; Family Size; Fertility Determinants; Marriage and Divorce Rates)


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Irving Tallman
Ginna M. Babcock