Cross-cultural Comparison: Pro Family Policies
The discussion thus far has focused on family values attitudes within families—a debate that shows no signs of abating. However, perhaps most significant to keep in mind when thinking about the family and family values: Is the family valued by society? It is important to examine the value families have for the social system as indicated by pro-family policies. An extra and cross-cultural analysis considers a few important measures of family support in five Western industrialized countries, including the United States, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Sweden. Three factors that have an impact on families' well being (especially in light of an increasing proportion of dual-earner couples worldwide) will be addressed: maternity leave, family leave, and childcare. The information for all countries has been obtained from the Clearing-house on International Developments in Child, Youth, and Family Policies at Columbia University.
Maternity leave. In France women as mothers are valued by their country in at least two ways: First, they can take advantage of job-protected leave six weeks before and ten weeks after the birth of a child with 80 percent of their pay. Second, medical care related to pregnancy is paid by the state. Great Britain allows more release time from work than does France: eighteen weeks job-protected time off, with 90 percent of wages for six weeks, then twelve weeks at a lower rate of pay. Italy's maternity leave, which was instituted eighty-nine years ago, is more generous than Great Britain. Pregnant women can take a leave from work eight weeks prior to birth and stay out for twelve weeks after the birth with 80 percent of their pay. Another perquisite that any mother would appreciate: Italian women who work full-time are entitled to a two-hour rest period during the day for the first year after giving birth.
Sweden offers the most generous maternity leave. Swedish women can take up to eighteen months off work with 80 percent of their pay for twelve months. Of the five countries examined, the United States has the least family-friendly maternity policy. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 is useful for those who meet the conditions. First, a worker must be employed by a company with fifty or more employees (companies with fewer than fifty are exempt). Second, the employee must have worked 1,250 hours in the previous year. If those conditions are met, then the employee is entitled to apply for a twelve-week job-protected unpaid leave for birth or adoption of a child or other medical needs of a family. An important caveat: a company is not required to hold the same job the employee held before the leave, only a job.
Family leave. What do countries do for families once the child is born? French workers are entitled to job-protected parental leave after one year on the job and can take up to five paid days a year to care for a sick child. An attractive feature is that both parents can take the leave simultaneously. Although not as generous as France, Great Britain also acknowledges the needs of the family concerning this issue. Britons are permitted an unpaid job-protected leave up to thirteen weeks that can be taken until a child reaches 5 years of age. Italy demonstrates its pro-family stance by giving working parents unlimited job-protected leave to care for a sick child less than 3 years old. Sweden's policy is not as generous in terms of time, but it enables parents to take up to sixty days a year to care for an ill child or if the child's caretaker is ill. The United States does not have a policy beyond the Family and Medical Leave Act noted above.
Childcare. Affordable, safe, convenient childcare is one of the most important components for parents to put in place when they are employed outside the home. In France, childcare centers serve children age three months to two years and parents pay about a quarter of the cost. France also has preschool education for children two to six years old. Most parents take advantage of the preschool. Great Britain's childcare support is meanstested. That is, it targets children of the poor. Nevertheless, poor parents must pay 30 percent of the cost. On the other hand, Italy's working parents have publicly funded childcare available for children age three months to three years, with working mothers and poor mothers having priority.
Sweden appears to be the most supportive of its families in the area of childcare. It guarantees childcare for children aged one to eleven for parents who work or who are students. Early childhood education centers provide universal coverage for children less than seven years old. In the United States federal subsidies have been instituted that coincide with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act that were meant to facilitate the shift from welfare to work for those who need childcare. Then, too, there are Head Start and Early Head Start programs for low-income families. These programs have a dual purpose of preparing poor children for school as well as acting as childcare for their parents who work. Unfortunately, the programs are in danger of being cut because of the U.S. tax cut in early 2001 and the slowdown in the U.S. economy. Other forms of assistance exist for low- to moderate-income parents (parents earning less than $30,000) in the form of the Earned Income Tax Credit and a Dependent Care Tax Credit to assist with childcare expenses.
This cursory comparative overview underscores Cherlin's assessment that: ". . . the U.S. ...is down right stingy in its family benefits (2001, p. 243)." A concentration of resources for families with young children helps explain why France and Sweden have single digit child poverty rates well below 10 percent. It could explain, too, why the United States has a higher infant mortality rate (higher than twenty-one other industrialized countries).
More U.S. subsidies are means-tested than those in other countries. This correlates with the U.S. ideology of individualism and the notion of family self-sufficiency. It explains, too, why there has been so much resistance to welfare in the United States. As the family-assistance policies are currently written, few are entitled to receive aid. It is instructive to note that the United States, which offers less support for families, outspends all other countries on prisons. In the last decade spending for prisons in the United States has increased in the same proportion that spending for education has decreased.
Family-friendly policies require a collective sacrifice on the part of a citizenry and many countries are currently chafing under the burden of widespread economic stagnation. Nevertheless, the costs are more palatable because the benefits are, for the most part, universal, meaning all can participate to some extent. Thus, in the long run, families have healthier members and states have healthier citizens. The family is changing, but if the family as an institution declines, it does so, in part, because the challenges facing families are not accompanied by supportive family policies.