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Family Matters No. 29 - August 1991

Valuing children and parents

The key to an Australian family
Don Edgar


With 1994 now declared as the United Nations' Year of the Family, the Australian Institute of Family Studies plans to develop a series of family policy position papers that may serve as a basis for Australia-wide discussion on whether family life is valued sufficiently in public policies and programs. The Institute's Director suggests that two documents may serve as a starting point for those position papers. They are the final report of the American Assembly discussion held in New York in November 1989, titled 'The future of social welfare in America', and a policy paper put out by the British Institute for Public Policy Research, titled 'The family way: a new approach to policy-making', written by Anna Coote, Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt. He outlines the contents of the reports, and highlights some of the major recommendations.

It seems timely to reassert the value of family life as the key to understanding and assessing policies and programs that claim to be for the family.

Timely when so many Australian families are under stress because of the recession; timely because so many policies masquerade as family policies that the currency is wearing thin; and timely because the focus is too much on what is done for families and too little on what families do for the rest of society.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies has been examining so-called family policies for more than a decade now, yet Australia still lacks a coherent approach to the central task of any government: creating and maintaining conditions that support the wellbeing of private citizens, of which a fundamental element is the wellbeing of the family.

Some of the necessary strategies have been activated and lately there has been some attempt to better coordinate those strategies across government jurisdictions and departmental boundaries.

We now have an indexed system of child-related benefits, although means- testing has restricted the number of beneficiaries, and, compared with the United States, Australia at least has universal, basic health cover and universal education.

However, huge inequalities are created by the lack of high quality child care and other early childhood development programs and, at the other end, there is an inadequate number of tertiary education places.

The current political demands for improved outer- suburban access to basic services is to be applauded, but the evidence on what people need or are willing to use is not yet in. Rural families still seem to be of lower priority and there is room for doubt about the virtues of higher density housing.

One very promising development is the drive to better coordinate State and Commonwealth family support services, and the stated intention of the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Brian Howe, to draw up an 'Agenda for Families', a program designed to ensure that jobs, health, housing and education services are accessible to all families before the International Year of the Family in 1994.

Nonetheless, there is some disquiet about 'family' policy, perhaps a hangover from the anti-family, anti-institutional ethos of the 'liberating' 1960s and 1970s, or an unwillingness to accept that family life is of central importance to the creation and maintenance of every individual and of society itself. For some, the 'soft' emotional nature of private life obscures its direct links with the 'hard' realities of economics, yet the family is both producer and consumer, the primal motive force for all productive activity.

With 1994 now declared as the United Nations' Year of the Family, the Institute plans to develop a series of family policy position papers that may serve as a basis for Australia-wide discussion on whether family life is valued sufficiently in public policies and programs.

Two documents may serve as a starting point for those position papers. They are the final report of the American Assembly discussion held in New York in November 1989, titled The Future of Social Welfare in America, and a policy paper put out by the British Institute for Public Policy Research, titled The Family Way: A New Approach to Policy- Making, written by Anna Coote, Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt.

United States

The United States report is interesting considering that America provides only minimal family support through the Aid for Families with Dependent Children program, no universal health care system, and has a history of failed attempts to highlight family needs.

The White House Conference on Families organised by President Carter in 1980 fell apart over disputed definitions of 'the family'. The Washington Family Impact Seminar, started around the same time, made valiant efforts to brief Congress on family issues and published several weighty reports. Senator Daniel Moynihan has continued to argue for better family support and groups such as 'Children Now' are effective lobby groups for change. But little happens.

'The Future of Social Welfare in America' argues that fundamental changes are required in social welfare policies. The report points to changes in family structure and new economic pressures on families that create new demands for child care, education and care for the elderly. It looks at the growing gap between the affluent and the impoverished, and warns of rising racial, ethnic, class and gender antagonisms which 'poison politics and civic life, rob the nation of productive resources and increasingly threaten the health, safety and developmental potential of children and youth'.

The report points also to the 'patchwork' of programs at federal, state and local levels, and the gap between almost overwhelming need and massive federal deficits that create resistance to new support programs. 'Not only do these challenges demand resources. More important, they demand a new attitude. Instead of problems to be remedied, they need to be seen as opportunities to rebuild society with greater equity, enhanced productivity and reduced vulnerabilities.'

Several guiding themes for social policy are outlined. As for International Year of the Family (see elsewhere in this issue), building upon the strengths of families and communities is seen as crucial. 'Children and adults must not be ''pathologized'' in order to justify the shortcomings of the economic and social systems,' the report says. Picking up the pieces after the damage is done, even damage control and mediation, are pathetic in contrast to spending on prevention and family maintenance.

Unusually for the United States, the report calls for national standards in the delivery of services and for 'broad- based universal programs which are widely supported by the public but designed also to assist the most disadvantaged'. No either/or approach here, rather a recognition that all families need a supportive environment and that special needs can still be catered for within a universal support framework.

As is the case worldwide, lack of coordination and fragmentation across departments and jurisdictions is cause for concern; family programs must be seen as a whole.

Some highlights from the report's recommendations may give some taste of the coming family policy debate:

  • 'Preventing early damage yields substantial savings for the society and the individual downstream.'
  • 'We should include the poor as citizens and not as dependents.'
  • 'What we need for our most vulnerable children is what we need for all children: a nurturing home; decent, affordable housing and a safe community environment; a healthy start in life; education that prepares them for a productive future; families with the means to support them financially and emotionally.'
  • 'The investment must begin before a child is born.'
  • 'The economy is shedding lower skilled jobs, the public school system is failing, the business community has a responsibility too.'
  • 'School organisation should move away from the factory model ... students have little chance to organise and process information or solve problems, skills they will need at work.'
  • 'Cruel poverty traps need reform.'
  • 'There should not be a time limit on AFDC support but intensive effort to help recipients escape welfare dependency.'

Australian policy makers might well take note --- building up the personal resources of people and support partnerships are the keys.

United Kingdom

Several similar themes are developed in the British report, The Family Way: a New Approach to Policy-Making.

The authors compare the way Right and Left wing politics have addressed the question of the family, and suggest that policies must move with, not against, changing family behaviours, a view that might well be challenged if those behaviours are being driven by forces that might themselves be changed to improve family life conditions.

Whereas the Right sees the family in only one acceptable form, as a basis for social (paternal) control and as the main defence of individual freedom against the threat of collectivism, the Left openly endorses 'equality and choice', the inextricable link between public and private spheres and the sharing of parental responsibilities.

The Right's dilemma lies in supporting employers' need for more women in the labour force while remaining committed to a model of family life in which women are primarily home-based carers. The Left's dilemma flows more from a distrust of 'the family' as an instrument of consumer control and the vision of a more equal partnership that might be acceptable to all concerned.

The British report documents succinctly the main changes in the structure of family life. Whereas the model of the breadwinner-housewife, middle-class family was never universal, it has exerted a powerful influence as an ideal for more than a century and a half. But what is 'changing slowly is the correlation between how people think family life ought to be lived, and how people are actually living', the report states.

The economic shift away from manufacturing to a service-based economy dominated by information technology and flexible specialisation is only one element of that divergence. Marriage as private relationship rather than as social institution, the growth in consumerism, expanded education, changing expectations and options for women, the declining birthrate --- all exert an influence.

Evidence for blaming a range of social problems on the 'breakdown of traditional family life' is examined. Divorce and separation affect children where the quality of their continuing relationship with each parent is poor. Lone parenthood does not cause delinquency or under- achievement, but the associated poverty probably does. Remarriage may improve material circumstances but is too often entered into for reasons other than free choice or the best interests of the children. In my view, this section of the report fudges the issue by suggesting that all these family changes have a good side, when instead they are 'second-bests' or qualifiers only of the serious difficulties they cause for many children.

On the policy side, however, the British report is a step in the right direction.

As guidelines, it is surely sensible to say policies must look change in the face and mitigate the painful effects wherever possible rather than accuse increasingly large numbers of people of living in the 'wrong' kind of family. As the British report says, 'What counts is the process, not the label. Policy should focus on what happens in families, rather than on the label or status attached to different living arrangements.'

It is also sensible to call for a long-term perspective and anticipate the outcomes and policies across family generations, to take account of the social policy in other countries, and for public policy to use encouragement and discouragement for certain forms of behaviour, but not coercion which is undemocratic and unlikely to work. The Singapore approach is a good model (Quah 1990).

The key guideline suggested in the British report, however, is one we in Australia must face squarely. We may talk of equal opportunity, work and the family, youth homelessness and aged care as elements of family policy but I am inclined to agree with the British assertion that 'Children come first. We all bear responsibility for all our children. Family policy should be primarily concerned with the process of bringing up and caring for children.'

This is akin to the Quebec family policy model (see Family Matters No.26 April 1990, p.8), which holds firmly that 'the first among our institutions, the family, performs the functions that are the source of the development of people and of our collective existence: therefore, whatever the ties that bind their members, families have the right, through the various cycles of life, to appropriate collective support, by the mere fact of what parents accomplish in raising children for whom they are responsible in the eyes of society and the law'.

That is why the Quebec family policy calls for coordination of policies affecting the family, the school and the workplace. 'These three spheres of life make up the triangle representing the social and economic development on which society is based. In their daily activities, parents are at the heart of this triangle' (Quebec 1986).

The British report sets out five main goals for a new family policy based on the centrality of children and the role of parents:

  • 'Every child should have the right to be dependent and to grow up in conditions which enable it to become a dependable adult. Every child, for part of its life, needs to depend on others. The quality of the child's relationships with those on whom it depends, and the conditions in which it experiences dependency, are crucial to its development.
  • Families need strong, self-reliant women. In most families, women are the mainstay, on whom children and others depend. Yet for most women, being dependable is a struggle against considerable odds. Their own lives are shaped by enforced dependency, which brings with it poverty and powerlessness. This is bad for women and, ultimately, bad for men. More important still, it is bad for children, because it undermines the personal resources of those who are their primary carers.
  • Changing times require a new sense of responsibility in men. According to traditional thinking, male responsibility is primarily about financial support: this preoccupation lies at the heart of the current crisis in family life. A new family policy should encourage new kinds of responsibility. Firstly, responsibility as fathers means forming strong, loving and lasting bonds with their children. Secondly, responsibility as partners means changing their role in the household and learning to respect --- and treat --- women as individuals of equal worth.
  • Public policy should recognise that the essence of successful family life is neither enforced dependency, nor isolated individualism, but interdependence. Within families, interdependence implies a relationship between equals and the end of the 'separate spheres' model of family life, which produces unequal power relations, locking men into exile from their children and women into dependency on men. Within communities, social institutions should support families without trapping them in dependency.
  • Policies should be adaptable, to support all kinds of family. As fewer families conform to the traditional model of family life, public policy should seek to support the process of family life, whatever the shape or size of the family unit.'

What follows in The Family Way is a detailed outline of the implications of these new goals. These cover social supports such as child and health care, the links between work and family, the role of the tax and income transfer system in the functioning of the family, and policies for helping families when things go wrong.

It is a nice model for Australia and others to follow.


  • The Family Way Institute for Public Policy Research, 18 Buckingham Gate, London, SWIE 6LB, UK.
  • 'The Future of Social Welfare in America', in American Family, Vol.13, No.1, January 1990, pp. 11-18, available from Youth Policy Institute, 1221 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Suite B, Washington DC, 20005, USA.
  • Quah, S. (ed.) (1990), The Family as an Asset: An International Perspective on Marriage, Parenthood and Social Policy, University of Singapore Press, Singapore.
  • Quebec (1986), Report of the Committee for Consultation on Family Policy, Vol.2: Collective Support Recommended for Quebec Families, Government of Quebec, July.