Insights from Existing Literature
In terms of focus and conceptualization, research and scholarship to date have concentrated mainly on identifying the different dimensions and areas of family policy, strongly favoring analysis of institutional features and underlying exigencies, especially in terms of the “problems” policy is intended to ameliorate and hence its functions (Ferrarini, 2006; Hantrais, 2004; Kaufmann, 2002; Wennemo, 1994). This literature has shown that the policy field is potentially quite broad and that a varied set of measures has been developed for the purposes of supporting families and regulating family life. These include cash transfers, tax credits and tax allowances, employment leaves, child-related education and care services, family services, employment leave arrangements, and legal measures to encode rights and responsibilities (Fox Harding, 1996; Millar & Warman, 1996; Saraceno, 2011). The comparative literature—which is a marked characteristic family of policy research—also makes clear that there is great variation in the primacy, role, and constituent elements of family policy cross-nationally (Daly, 2010; Gauthier, 1996; Saraceno & Keck, 2010).
All of this has a deceptive simplicity to it. In fact, though, there are many complexities to be worked out, especially in a policy field that is developing quite rapidly with policymakers appearing to be more and more prioritizing the family as a focus of policy development and intervention.
The definition and scope of family policy is not clear-cut and there is no consensus about either. Gauthier (1999, p. 32) terms family policy a “wide umbrella of policies.” As such, some serious decisions are required about what to include and exclude. These decisions cohere around four main sets of questions. The first is where to draw the boundary around family policy in the policy universe overall: which areas and measures should be included or excluded? The most widespread consensus in scholarship is to define family policy as policies associated with families with children. But what about other domains that touch on matters of private and family life? Care for older people is a prime example (this point is further developed in Chapter 14 by Dykstra & Djundeva in this volume). Why might this be seen as family policy? One possible reason is that it falls within the role of and set of responsibilities assigned to family membership and the family as a social institution. However, while true historically in some European countries, this is less and less the case now, especially legally—only in three European Union (EU) member states do families have a legally enshrined responsibility to care or provide for their elderly relatives (Hungary, Latvia, & Lithuania) (Spasova et al., 2018). Hence, on this count anyway, it seems appropriate to adopt a narrower definition of family policy—as centered around the well-being, functioning, and responsibilities of families with children.Footnote 1 Employment is another example. One could argue for an inclusive approach here along the lines that family and other policies are concerned with employment or affect employment-related behavior by virtue of the incentives and disincentives that are built into them, especially regarding the behaviors of parents and spouses. However, that said, family policy is not employment policy and its primary purpose arguably lies elsewhere (to financially secure the family as institution, for example, or to monitor and support child-rearing). There is an insight here about what is directly targeted by policy as against looser interconnections, which I will follow up below. The point to note now is that it calls on the analyst to be mindful that there are broader and narrower perspectives on what it is that family policy may aim to do and that family policy is always part of a wider social policy constellation.
A second and related issue pertains to the level(s) of analysis and in particular what attention to give to the vertical (as against horizontal) dimensions. The tradition in the field is for analysis situated at a single dimension or level, usually the nation state level. This closely reflects the policy world, with family policymaking centralized at nation-state level, especially in terms of cash transfers. It is a view biased by viewing family policy as cash transfers though; when one brings family services into the analysis other levels come into play. As this handbook testifies, family policies are formulated and implemented at other levels also. In addition to the nation-state level, such other levels include supranational organizations such as the United Nations (UN), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the EU, the subnational level of municipalities, states, or regions in which people live, and the organizations in which people work (companies or firms). Each of these has an analytical purchase. However, in the European context, it should be pointed out that the EU has no direct competence in family policy—that is a member state jurisdiction. This notwithstanding, the EU has taken action in matters that are closely related to family functioning, work–family balance, for example. The significance of this is that the transnational level should be part of any theoretical framework on family policy. So too should the possibility of decentralization within the nation-state. Elements of family policy are frequently administered at a subnational level, especially family-related services (such as ECEC). Companies or firms too are potential family policy actors, most often by virtue of their provision of services (again with ECEC as the prime example but also—and especially in the past—income supplementation to male workers with family responsibilities).
Thirdly, review of the literature also raises a question about whether to adopt what is officially defined or conceived as family policy, or to go outside or beyond states’ self-representations of what constitutes family policy. The latter allows the analyst to take a more theoretically informed and even critical approach. Kamerman and Kahn (1978, p. 3) bring this issue to the fore when they differentiate between explicit and implicit family policy. To qualify as explicit, policies and programs are put in place to achieve explicit goals regarding the family and the situation of families; implicit family policy is where governmental actions and policies may not be specifically or primarily addressed to the family but which have indirect effects on the situation of families and the well-being of the individuals who comprise them. In the former, family has to be a specific policy focus to merit the label “family policy.” There is a deliberateness about it with intentionality as a key factor driving policy. An explicit family policy could not exist without a strong sense of the family as a unit or institution of importance in society. This in turn rests upon acceptance of the state as a legitimate actor in regard to the family. The core meaning of “implicit,” on the other hand, is that the family as such is not targeted but is envisaged to be affected by policies nonetheless. In the implicit scenario, family policy is not a recognizable policy entity, resembling more a “perspective” than a “field” in Kamerman and Kahn’s terms. It seems to me that—given that family policy is a recognizable field within and across the European and other countries now (unlike when Kamerman and Kahn were writing 40 years ago)—an explicit understanding of family policy provides a rich field of analysis.
However, it is not as easy as that for we need to update what an explicit policy approach might mean nowadays. In this, we cannot regard policy as fixed or follow blindly what states or other entities consider as “family policy.” The risk with the latter is that we miss relevant aspects of policy and also that the broader impact and focus will slip from view. Hence, as well as a sensitivity to explicit or implicit family policy, our understanding needs to be centrally informed by a conception of familyFootnote 2 (what it is and what it does). The existing literature suggests that a complex understanding would differentiate between family as a set of individuals and as a collective structure (Mätzke & Ostner, 2010). In the former, emphasis is placed on family as a set of roles and relationships; the latter emphasizes the functions performed by the family as a structure
or mode of organization. The former is more novel than the latter as a line of analysis in family policy. The need to disaggregate family to focus on the individuals who comprise it comes especially from the feminist literature which has sought to move beyond the conception of family as a unit(y) of common interests among members to highlight internal processes, often associated with power imbalances between family members, that have an impact (Williams, 2004). Disaggregation is important also from a generational perspective, especially from a child-centered vantage point (Daly, 2020a). While there are limits to the extent to which this chapter can take account empirically of the degree to which family policy instruments affect individual family members, for the purposes of a theoretical framework it is important to note that it can and does seek to influence individual family relationships
. The following section will demonstrate some such effects.
Insights from Contextualizing Family Policy
Family policy in Europe has a rich history (Bahle, 2008; Therborn, 2004). There is much to learn from it in terms of not just insights about practice but also from a more theoretical perspective. I undertake a brief historical overview—focusing on the policy modalities as well as variations—in order to develop insights for a theoretical perspective.
It is generally agreed that state responsibility for families developed later than other areas of social policy, especially in comparison to social policies oriented to income redistribution and securing the adult life course (Gauthier, 1996). But we need to temper this interpretation somewhat by recognizing the broader origins of family policy and the philosophical underpinnings involved. The deep roots of family policy lie especially in the institutional and legal context and how the institutions governing family life—like marriage, parenthood, and childhood—have been and are legally constituted (see Hank & Steinbach, 2019, for a recent overview). These are very long-standing. Thinking about them brings two insights to the fore. First, the legal institutions form the backdrop or underpinning to family policy and highlight an early intentionality on the part of the state associated with the regulation of the family. Second, they underline a long-standing concern with the family as a structure or mode of organization.
The interest in family as a form of organization gave rise to a number of family policy. One was cash or financial supports through taxation or vouchers which have been very dominant in the field of family policy. Among the first family policies were those offering financial assistance to families mainly in the form of income supplements for children (most widely known as “family benefits” or “child benefits”). These dated from the 1940s in many countries (and earlier in some) (Gauthier, 1996). They varied in terms of whether they compensated for all children and the degree to which they differentiated the level of support on the basis of the child’s age or number of children in the family (universal or selective). Eliminating poverty and hardship among families was a widespread motivation for the introduction of child-related financial transfers. This trained the spotlight initially on the most needy sectors of society and so the first such transfers, introduced between the 1870s and 1920s, were directed at special categories of families, typically necessitous mothers, widows, and orphans. There was also a second route to the growth of financial transfers to families—employers adding subventions to wages for the fathers among their workforce. This too was selective in that only some employers engaged in the practice and it took hold only in some countries (principally Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Spain). It underlines the point made earlier about the firm as a potentially important level of family policy implementation. Over time though, national states took on the practice of supporting workers and others with the costs of raising children, either by paying civil servants with children additional wages or allowances or by introducing child benefits and/or tax allowances more universally for families with children. The interest in the family as a particular form of organization was to be seen especially in the channeling of support to fathers, which served to underpin the male breadwinner model of employed father and stay-at-home mother—the industrious father and the caring mother at home symbolizing the appropriate moral order. With the male breadwinner family as the preferred form, early social and family policies linked closely to the idea of a family wage, and provided subsidies for both marriage and the “dependants” of the breadwinner (Crouch, 1999). This, together with the widespread belief that young children should be cared for at home, made for a strong gender division of responsibilities and roles. This helps to explain cross-national and other variations in the degree to which income supports were favored over services. Countries which limited their family policy to income supports tended to support a traditional family model whereas those that offered both income and services were less doctrinaire about the best type of family model (true especially of the Nordic countries and France).
Family policy has also been concerned about protecting family-related actors and activities. Protection for mothers has been key here and also has deep roots in family policy. One of the primary policy modalities here has been income and employment protection for new mothers. Maternity benefits are the familiar policy here—combining income subsidies with employment leave for mothers while they are out of employment for childbirth. This is one of the oldest social security benefits in Europe and elsewhere, predating child income support or family income support in many locations. This is a domain of policy that has grown and expanded considerably beyond its roots (as we will see in the next section of the chapter especially). The last two to three decades have seen a notable trend to extend a range of child- and family-related employment leaves to include first parental and later paternity leaves.
It will be obvious that this goes beyond the family as a structure or mode of organization—targeting the roles and behaviors of family members. This is a counterpole (although not necessarily an oppositional one) to the focus on family as structure or institution. In some countries—such as those in the Nordic region where family is not a strong mobilizing concept—family-related policy sought to or was utilized to support employment and equal opportunities on the part of both female and male parents. In order to achieve this families were given access to high-quality childcare and other services as well as ensuring income sufficiency. This model did not operate with a strong or uniform concept of family as a collective or even separate institution but was more focused on individual well-being, opportunity, and equality (Ellingsaeter & Leira, 2006). Women’s role and identity as workers was written into the institutions of state and market. Furthermore, while family membership might be a source of emotional stability and identity, family as a privileged social unit was much less supported as compared with other parts of Europe. Service provision for families was widespread and access tended to be anchored in social rights.
The foregoing highlights that the underlying model of family was very important historically in influencing the content and orientation of family policy. Looking at developments in context, further, draws attention on the one hand to social policy’s interest in the family as a structure—as an organizational unit and a social institution—and on the other hand to family as comprising relationships, roles, and sets of responsibilities among people bound together by ties of kinship. The underlying point here is that family policy modalities potentially affect both. Income supports, for example, if given to the father perpetuate a traditional division of resources whereas if given to the mother allow for some financial independence and autonomous recognition of her role—hence policy (whether it intends to or not) affects the relationships between parents and respective roles and activities in regard to family life. All of this leads me to suggest that family policies serve two main functions: supporting/resourcing individuals/the collective unit and regulating family-related behavior and relationships. Hence, it is vital not to adopt a perspective that limits particular policy instruments to particular functions or orientations (a reason why we need to have a more critical perspective on explicit family policies). I will keep these differentiations and the many complexities to the fore as we proceed.