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The Mannheim International Family Policy Project:The Family Policy Database

Thomas Bahle and Mathias Maucher

As part of an international project co-ordinated by the MZES a comparative family policy database is being developed which includes time-series and information on institutional regulations in the field of family policy. The database aims at providing information and becoming a base for comparative analyses and family policy monitoring in Europe.

In autumn 1996 an MZES team started developing the concept for a family policy database as part of the international research project "Family Change and Family Policies in the Western World" directed by Peter Flora and co-ordinated by the MZES since 1994. The project studies family change and family policies in Europe, the United States of America, Canada and New Zealand in a comparative, long-term and comprehensive view. Researchers from fourteen countries are working on standardized country reports and comparative studies using national and international sources. In addition, the project aims at developing a new comparative family policy database. In this short article we briefly discuss the research context out of which the database has been developed, then point to major aims, the scope and design of the database, and its major components and links. We conclude our contribution by sketching out possibilities for analysis and discussing some yet unresolved questions in the development of the database. It should be made clear that this is a report on "work in progress" and we are not yet able to present results.

What is the research context of the database?

Changing family structures and their implications for social policies have become a major concern for governments all over Europe. Initiatives have been started to monitor and analyse these developments at national and European levels. Also within social science, comparative family policy studies have flourished in recent years, but no attempt has been made to study family change and family policies comparatively in a long-term approach which is necessary to understand current problems and issues thoroughly. Furthermore, the lack of comparative data has always been a major obstacle for research in this area, but so far no project has tried to build up a comparative database on family policies.

Existing international data on social security do not focus on the family. Data provided by EUROSTAT or other international organizations are mostly too highly aggregated. The same holds for information on institutional regulations provided at the European level by MISSOC. Usually these sources lack detailed information relating to the family which is necessary for comparative family policy analyses. This becomes even more apparent when we take into account the fact that family policies intersect almost all social policy areas - and even areas beyond social policy. It is not yet possible to "isolate" the specific "family dimension" from the existing international data. What is therefore needed is a database that is explicitly designed for the purpose of comparative family policy analyses, "framing" and "structuring" the inherent complexities in this policy field.

What are the aims of the database?

Let us start by saying that the database is not about political actors and decision-making in the field of family policies, nor is it about policy outcomes at the level of families. The database is designed within an historical-comparative, macro-sociological approach focusing on institutions. This means that it contains data and information on "inputs" (financing) and "throughputs" (institutional regulations, expenditures, beneficiaries) of family policies as part of "welfare production" in society. The database is not intended for analysing policy outcomes, e.g. the impact of family policies on family income or time-use.

We pursue three major aims in developing the database:

  1. collecting and providing detailed institutional information and quantitative data on family policies in European countries (information system);
  2. building up a database for research (comparative analyses);
  3. developing comparative family policy indicators (policy monitoring).

The first aim requires detailed data and information for which we have to rely on national sources. Quantitative data are institution-based statistical macro-data describing specific measures or programmes. The second aim requires standardization across countries and time without losing country-specific information. The third aim can only be achieved when links to external datasets are established.

What is the scope of the database?

In developing the database design we had to make several crucial decisions: firstly, defining the scope with regard to geographic space, time and content; secondly, conceptualizing the central unit of reference, the database components and their interrelations (cf. Synopsis 1); and thirdly, considering links to external datasets for the purpose of comparative studies and indicator development (cf. Synopsis 2).

With respect to geographic space, our decision has been to focus on European countries, in this case EU member states plus Norway and Switzerland. At a later stage we plan to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. With respect to time, we decided to start from the time when family policies were first enacted or data are available. Due to the lack of historical data this means that the focus is mainly on the period from the 1950s up to the present. The idea behind these decisions has been that Europe is a meaningful "unit" for comparison and that a historical perspective is necessary to understand recent developments and current problems. Decisions on content and structure of the database are complex and need to be discussed thoroughly.

What is included in "family policy"?

In no country of the European Union does family policy belong to the most important social policies, but the family offers a good "perspective" for analysing the welfare state as a whole: it is the key to almost all welfare-state institutions and social policies. Family policy is a cross-sectional task rather than a clear-cut social policy area. It cannot be strictly defined by a few institutions, or by key political actors, or by distinct outcomes and impact on families. Developing a comparative family policy database across time therefore requires going beyond particular concepts of specific political actors in certain countries at particular moments in time. Such a starting point could never lead to a comparative database. Furthermore, it should be recognized that "explicit" family policies constitute only a small part of government policies related to the family. If we started from impact on families, we would also be lost, because almost all policies have some consequences for families.

Our task has been to develop a concept for comparing family policies between countries and over time. For the purpose of the database we have chosen an institutional approach focusing on the "family dimension" of the welfare state, i.e codified/legal institutional regulations related to the family which includes the sub-dimensions maternity, parenthood, children, partnership and relationships between generations within the family. This concept covers both explicit and implicit policies insofar as they belong to the welfare state and if they are related to the family in institutional terms. One can distinguish between a core area of family policy which includes for example family allowances, financial support to poor, large or one-parent families, maternity benefits, child-care services, and child and youth protection, and a broad family dimension in the welfare state, e.g. in pension, health, or unemployment insurance, in categorical and general social assistance programmes, and in education, housing, and tax policies.

What is the unit of reference in the database or - to put it differently - on what level should information and data be collected?

Most existing data, in particular comparative data, are too highly aggregated to be a flexible instrument for comparative family policy analysis. Therefore we have attempted to collect data at the lowest possible level of aggregation. The central unit of the database is thus constituted by individual family policy measures which fulfil certain requirements such as "state intervention", "specific legal codification" and/or "specific institutional character" (cf. Synopsis 1: Individual measures). Family policy is regarded as public (state) policy, even if the state is only intervening in "private" institutions to enforce certain rules, e.g. in the case of maintenance payments or parental leave arrangements. However, if there are no data available for specific individual measures, we collect them at the level of the scheme/agency in charge of a number of measures (cf. Synopsis 1: Institutions: Institutional responsibility for measures).

The first step is to identify family policy measures in each country and make them comparable through standardization. Standardization means first classifying family policy measures in all countries according to a common cross-tabular scheme (codification), and second "designing" standard variables for all types of data and information. We have applied a four-level grid for codifying family policy measures, in which instrument (cash benefit; tax benefit; personal social service; benefit in kind) is the first level, target groups in the family (child(ren), spouse, mother, parents) is the second, and field of family policy is the third level. Additional criteria for the fourth level establish a system of classification with the aim of developing standard variables for family policy measures within the same categories.

What information is collected? What are the database components and how are they related to each other?

Synopsis 1 gives an overview of the database structure. We point out what we regard as the three major characteristics of the database design:

  1. the combination of quantitative time-series and information on the development of institutional regulations for each individual family policy measure;
  2. the "placement" of family policy measures in their country-specific institutional structures as well as in a comparative framework of typologies and classifications;
  3. the "openness" of the comparative framework, resulting from a non-hierarchical variable-oriented approach to typologies and classifications.

We consider these three major characteristics to be crucial for the value of the database for comparative family policy studies. As far as we can see such a combination of elements at such a low level of aggregation has never been tried in this area before.

For each individual family policy measure we collect information in the form of quantitative time-series on an annual basis from the year of enactment or the year data are available. Depending on the instrument of family policy, variables include benefit rates, number of beneficiaries, expenditures and receipts (for cash benefits) or places offered/personnel employed (for social services), each broken down by specific sub-categories (cf. Synopsis 1: Quantitative time-series). In addition, we collect information on the development of central institutional regulations, including entitlement conditions, access to services, and financing. Institutional regulations refer to time periods which are defined by changes in central rules (cf. Synopsis 1: Institutional regulations). For both types of information variables are standardized across all countries. The aim is to "observe" the development of family policies over time. In the medium term - (after) being related to external datasets - the database could become an instrument for an historically-based permanent monitoring of family policies as part of a broader information system.

With respect to the second major characteristic of the database design, there is no need to emphasize the crucial importance of comparative typologies for a comparative database (cf. Synopsis 1: Comparative typologies). However, country-specific institutional structures must also not be neglected if one is interested in a more comprehensive perspective, especially in the field of family policy which intersects almost all the institutions in the different European welfare states. The "family dimension" of the welfare state can only be studied comparatively by relating individual family policy measures to the country-specific institutional structures in which they are embedded. Since institutional structures widely vary across Europe, the scope and "limits" of family policies and their explicit or implicit relation to other policies vary (cf. Synopsis 1: Institutions).

The third major characteristic concerns the "openness" and flexibility of comparative typologies to allow for re-arranging and combining data from different research perspectives. The use of mainly one-dimensional, hierarchical classification schemes has been a main shortcoming of existing international data. Our main idea therefore has been to standardize information on family policies across countries by various classification procedures, using different approaches and variables, for instance with respect to family policy functions, target groups, system and scheme characteristics, or type of benefit provision. Users will be able to combine and compare measures across countries by employing different variable-based "search" strategies in the database.

Which computer programmes are used and how do we combine the different types of information technically?

The database runs on MS ACCESS®. Both institutional regulations and comparative typologies are presented and searchable via specific forms (the same is planned for the indicators). The time-series data - stored in MS EXCEL® tables and transferred to SAS® datasets - are embedded in the database via specific ODBC-drivers. Central information concerning e.g. the family dimension in social security or institutional structures for different fields of family policy, stored as MS EXCEL® or MS WORD® files, can be directly accessed via MS ACCESS®. We intend to integrate all quantitative and qualitative information in SAS® datasets, enabling both statistical analysis of database contents and linkages of these to external datasets. These programmes were chosen because they are widely used in social sciences and easily accessible.

How can data and information be used?

Whereas synopsis 1 tries to present the database structure by visualizing components and their interrelationship and to sketch out strategies of usage, i.e. navigating and selection processes, synopsis 2 aims at structuring possibilities of output, comparison, and statistical analysis as well as clarifying the linkage of database components to specific external datasets.

In this overview article we can neither give detailed information about the standardized variables per field of family policy nor illustrate the procedure of selecting measures or institutions, nor refer broadly to the main options of comparing measures or countries. All this will be dealt with in a working paper to be published in January 1998. Nevertheless some explanation of synopses 1 and 2 is necessary.

Let’s start with synopsis 1 (information system). The user must first decide whether to compare similar family-related programmes in two or more countries, or to analyse one country in depth (cf. Synopsis 1: Dimension 1: European countries). Then the user may choose between focusing on a specific year or limited period of time, or looking at a longer time span (cf. Synopsis 1: Dimension 2: Time 1950-2000). As regards "topic", the user may either select one out of twenty "functions" of family policy (family policy function) or refer to one of the four-level hierarchical codes (MZES-code). These three dimensions enable the user to focus on specific aspects and can be applied either separately or in combination (cf. Synopsis 1: Dimension 3: Family policy function/ MZES-Code). The filtering process based on the criteria determined within the navigation and selection procedure establishes a table listing one or several family-related programmes. By opting for one specific measure the user will finally arrive at the central unit of reference (cf. Synopsis 1: Individual measures).

Data and information about the chosen family policy measure are linked to their institutional context (cf. Synopsis 1: Institutions: Institutional structure for family policy field). At the same time they are related to the agency having the budgetary responsibility for carrying out the programme (cf. Synopsis 1: Institutions: Institutional responsibility for measures). If in a country the same programme is administered by more than one agency, or if the same type of service is provided by at least two legally or organizationally distinct institutions, information is given both on this and on the national level, the latter implying a process of aggregation of data. The former holds e.g. for France and Belgium with regard to nearly all family-related cash benefits, the latter is the case in every country characterized by institutional pluralism e.g. on the field of child care or home help services. With respect to these constellations, the institutional regulations will normally only be transferable to the national level with several exceptions. Time-series data on specific measures or programmes are included on an annual basis, either from the year of their enactment or from the period of their development, or from the date published data are available; institutional regulations and comparative typologies refer to periods, implying the need to break these down into smaller time segments.

Let’s now turn to synopsis 2 (re-grouping of information and statistical analysis). It is evident that the form of information and data and the way they are presented will determine the strategies of analysis, especially the possibilities of comparison offered. Different options are available depending on the unit of reference (individual measure or scheme/agency) and the form of information or data (quantitative time-series vs. qualitative information representing institutional regulations and comparative typologies). The grey shaded fields mark possible combinations, lower- and upper-case letters and numbers indicate which database components (cf. I database components) must be entered in the analysis respectively. Option 1 only points to the generally available possibility of printout or output for every database component. Option 2 "grouping or analysis of measures" builds on the database programme’s capacity to compare measures by applying one or more filters to a specific form, i.e. to select measures showing one or more corresponding variables. Option 3 "statistical analysis" (cross-sectional or longitudinal and/or country-specific or comparative) creates a link to calculating family policy indicators. This normally will imply using external datasets (cf. Synopsis 2: II external data-sets), especially matching database contents with datasets in the fields of demography, social protection, and labour market (cf. Synopsis 2: II external data-sets: B) context variables) contents variables). If family policies in different countries are to be analysed, auxiliary variables to account for differences between national currencies with regard to living standards resp. developments in living conditions are needed (cf. Synopsis 2: II external data-sets: A) auxiliary variables).

When will the database be accessible?

The ambitious endeavour to develop the family policy database requires intensive international co-operation with researchers and institutions. This is especially true for expert knowledge on country-specific institutional regulations and structures, on data availability and access as well as with regard to the development of comparative family policy indicators. Our project network provides such a framework for mutual exchange, but more exchange and co-operation is extremely welcome. We have only begun a process that will eventually lead to "institutionalizing" the database as a permanent instrument for a continuous reporting and monitoring of family policies in Europe. This may also be connected to analyses of policy outcomes.

For the time being, we have been concentrating our efforts on the core areas of family policies in a limited number of countries, which is partly explained by our own knowledge of policy fields, countries and languages, and by the progress of country reports in our international research network. With respect to family policy fields, we focus on income support for families in general and for lone-parent families, on the family dimension in social assistance, and cash benefits for caring for young children, ill or handicapped family members. From the many family-related personal social services we selected child-care services; in a second step we shall try to include child and youth protection. As to countries, we include France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Ireland and Greece. First results and some comparative family policy indicators may be published in the next edition of EURODATA Newsletter. We hope to make the family policy database accessible to the scientific community sometime in spring 1999.

We would like to conclude this article by pointing out some unanswered questions and permanent challenges in the implementation process. First, it is difficult to decide how to classify specific measures and regulations correctly, grouping together measures with the same "design" and thereby representable by a bundle of common qualitative and quantitative variables. Second, the dilemma of an adequate trade-off between standardization and country-specific information will always be present. We try to resolve this problem by anchoring the threefold standardized measure-related information in the country-specific institutional structures, by linking additional non standardized, programme-specific variables to the standard tables, and by providing extensive notes and references to sources. Third, the ex-ante determination of relevant and available variables per field of family policy is a difficult task, taking into account country- and measure-related "different construction logics" of similar family policy programmes.

Further information about the project can be obtained from:

Dr. Thomas Bahle/Mathias Maucher, Mannheimer Zentrum für Europäische Sozialforschung (MZES), Arbeitsbereich I, Universität Mannheim, D-68131 Mannheim, Tel.: +49/(0)621/292-1706 (Thomas Bahle)/+49/(0)621/292-1719(Mathias Maucher), Fax: +49/(0)621/292-1714, E-mail:

Thomas Bahle is sociologist and assistant at the University of Mannheim. He is member of the international family policy project and researcher at the MZES.

Mathias Maucher has graduated in administrative sciences. He is researcher at the MZES and manager of the family policy database.