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Family Policy

Welfare State Development, Welfare Regimes, Feminist Critiques Of Welfare Regimes, Demographic Trends And 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.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of Families