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Family Policy

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.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesFamily Policy - Welfare State Development, Welfare Regimes, Feminist Critiques Of Welfare Regimes, Demographic Trends And Family Policy