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feminists and gay and lesbian groups, argue that social programs must not favor the patriarchal nuclear family, which no longer represents the majority lifestyle.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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