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Sheila B. Kamerman and Alfred J. Kahn: Family Change and Family Policies in Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States

Gretchen Wiesehan

This volume is the first in a series on family change and family policies in the West, written by expert country teams, edited by Sheila Kamerman, Alfred Kahn, and Peter Flora, and produced at the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research. The series intends to look at modern welfare states in a comparative and historical perspective by focusing on policies that explicitly or implicitly target families with children. This project is the first to attempt such a multi-country comparison of family policy as a whole in a historical context; previous efforts have been restricted to only a few countries or to specific programs, such as child care or child allowances, or have not included the historical dimension. Future volumes in the series will include reports on the consociational democracies, Belgium, Switzerland, and The Netherlands; France and Southern Europe; capitalist and socialist Central Europe; and the Scandinavian welfare states.

In their introduction to this volume, Kamerman and Kahn specify what is meant by family change and family policy: family changes since World War II include the rise of the nuclear family, later age at marriage, declining fertility and family size, and increases in out-of-wedlock birth, non-marital cohabitation, and lone-parent families. Family policy encompasses laws, benefits and programs for families with children; explicit policy "may include population policies (pro- or anti-natalist), income security policies designed to assure families with children a certain standard of living, employment-related benefits for working parents, maternal and child health policies, child-care policies, and so forth" (p. 6), while implicit policy refers to measures not created specifically with families in mind, but which none the less have a significant impact on them. Family policy is most often intended as a response to family change, but may also lead to further change, as in the case of divorce law reform: in most Western countries by the late 1960s or early 1970s, increased demand for divorce led to changes in the laws making it easier to get a divorce, and it can be argued that the simpler procedures have helped keep the number of divorces significantly higher than before the reforms. Kahn and Kamerman also note that within the larger context of social policy, family policy may be used to achieve other social goals, such as making it easier for women to enter the labour market by providing child care or maternity or parental leave, or encouraging families to have more children by providing cash and other incentives, in order to fulfil national population goals. Thus "the family may be both object and vehicle of social policy" (p. 7).

Family policy has come a long way since its beginnings in France and Sweden in the form of wage supplements to male breadwinners in the nineteenth century. During the period of low fertility in the 1930s, cash benefits to families were seen as a way of encouraging parents to have more children, but it was not until after World War II that family allowances became a significant element of the expanding welfare state throughout Europe. Economic growth in the 1960s allowed for further expansion of family policy, including measures in health care, education, housing, and measures specifically for low-income families. Since the 1970s, economic recession and political and fiscal conservatism, particularly in the four countries in this volume, have led to major program cutbacks and new attitudes about how best to help families even as they take new forms, such as unmarried cohabitation and lone parenting.

As a result of their heritage as former British colonies, Canada, New Zealand and the United States share certain features with Great Britain, among them a tradition of economic liberalism and the Protestant work ethic, which have led to different policy choices than in the continental European countries, and indeed, to these countries’ implicit, rather than explicit, family policies. Other commonalities noted by Kahn and Kamerman include "a shared history of poor law as the point of departure for social policy ... heavy reliance on means-tested rather than universal benefits ... [and] a strong commitment to the primacy of the family in child care and childrearing and the importance of family privacy" (p. 10). Further, these four countries show greater ethnic diversity, encompassing the native populations in the colonized countries, immigrants, those originally brought as slaves, and immigrants to Britain from the Commonwealth countries, with various consequences for social policy.

Demographically, the four countries have followed the same general trends as the other OECD countries since World War II, though age at marriage remains lower and divorce rates higher than in continental Europe. However, minority groups in the four countries differ from the dominant population: for example, in Britain, fertility among certain immigrant groups is significantly higher than among British natives, though for other groups it has gradually fallen to the native level (p. 39). In Canada, the birth rate in the province of Quebec went from being the highest in the country in the 1950s to the lowest in the 1990s, despite the introduction of measures specifically intended to promote fertility. Fertility and family size among the Native population in the Northwest Territories are significantly above the national average, though declining. And "contrary to popular myth, immigrants have traditionally had lower birth rates than Canadian-born women" (p. 111). In New Zealand, Maori fertility rates dropped dramatically over the past two decades, but now fertility among Maori teenagers is much higher than for the Pakeha, the population of European descent. The proportion of lone-parent families is also much higher among the Maori, while these families are more likely to live within a multi-family household than on their own (p. 226). In the US, black women now tend to marry later and at lower rates than white women, and remarry after divorce at even lower rates, thus showing a much greater chance of being lone mothers. Black women also have dramatically higher rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing: in 1992, two-thirds of all births to black women were out of wedlock (p. 319).

Women’s labor force participation, both full- and part-time, grew significantly after World War II. In Britain, Canada and the US, about two-thirds of mothers with children are in the labor force, despite the relative lack of public child-care provision and limited maternity and parental leaves. Canada has the most extensive ‘package’ of leave and benefits of the four countries, with the provinces providing about 17 weeks of unpaid maternity leave and an additional 10 weeks of parental leave, and the federal government providing maternity and parental benefits under the Unemployment Insurance Program. Britain’s leave policies were fairly restrictive, until the government was forced to adopt the EU directive guaranteeing a 14-week leave to all working women, with benefits at the level of sick pay. In the US as well, it took a major struggle before a national parental leave policy was recently enacted; extremely modest by European standards, the policy provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave. New Zealand provides 14 weeks of unpaid maternity leave and one year of unpaid parental leave. In all four countries, employers may offer more generous terms and benefits to their employees, but government has shown real unwillingness to enact national standards on a level with much of continental Europe.

Other policy responses to family change have also been limited. After the ‘rediscovery’ of poverty and a period of program expansion in the 1960s, since the 1980s the four countries in this volume have increasingly narrowed the focus of provision, moving from universal measures (Britain, Canada, New Zealand) to more means-testing. Only Britain, most like its continental European neighbors, still has a universal child benefit, though "it provides far less through universal benefits than do the other northern European countries" (p. 20). Tax benefits are also a common feature, though they are typically worth more to families with higher incomes. In the near absence of universal measures specifically for families, social assistance is the only recourse for families in need, particularly lone-mother families. Indeed, in the US social assistance is only available for those with dependants, under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program which replaced the much-maligned Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1996. In both the US and Canada, federalism has led to differences in provision between provinces and states and hindered the development of nation-wide measures. In New Zealand, until the 1980s family policy took the form of supporting full employment and a family wage sufficient to enable a male breadwinner to support his wife and two children, as well as a universal family benefit from 1946 to 1991. With economic restructuring and high unemployment in the mid-1980s, this formula was replaced by a succession of tax benefits targeted at low-income families.

In general, family policy in these four countries remains fragmentary and need-driven rather than universal, which points to their shared tradition of laissez-faire and non-intervention in the family. On the other hand, a popular movement of moral conservatism which arose in the US in the 1980s, though similar phenomena have also made an appearance in Canada and Britain, has called on government to support traditional family values, including the male-breadwinner, female-homemaker family model, and limit abortion and out-of-wedlock childbirth.

Each country report, written by a local team of experts, contains detailed information on demographic developments, family law, family income and the division of labor, social services, and the politics and institutionalization of family policy from World War II to the present. The volume provides a closer look at the particularities of each country as well as an overview of their similarities, which reveals interesting contrasts with the other Western industrialized countries to be included in this series. This volume is intended to be useful for the scholar, with an extensive index and bibliography, but it is also accessible to less specialized readers, who may find themselves revising some of their preconceived notions about ‘typical’ family behavior and the interaction between families and the state.

Family Change and Family Policies in Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Sheila B. Kamerman and Alfred J. Kahn, editors. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997 (=Family Change and Family Policies in the West, ed. by P. Flora, S.B. Kamerman and A.J. Kahn, Vol. 1). XI+463 pp. ISBN: 0-19-829025-X. £50.00.

Dr. Gretchen Wiesehan
MZES, Research Department I
D-68131 Mannheim
Tel.: 0049(0)621-292-1717
Fax: 0049(0)621-292-1714

Gretchen Wiesehan is manuscript editor of the family change and family policies project at the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research.