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Family Matters No. 37 - April 1994

International Year of the Family

What are the Issues?
Peter McDonald


Having discussed the importance of the family to the individual's development and the difficulties associated with formulating family policy, the author presents summaries of the key articles in this issue of 'Family Matters'. The various authors have been asked to address possible directions for Australia in relation to a range of issues that are related to families. The issues as addressed are those identified as priority issues by the National Council for the International Year of the Family. They are family diversity, economic value of unpaid work, integration of private and social responsibility, disadvantaged families, workers with family responsibilities, sharing paid work and family life, human rights, family crisis and family violence.

Each of us has our own experience of family and our views about families are coloured by that experience. In discussions about families, even in academic settings, recourse is frequently made to personal experience to prove one's point. Because our experience of families is diverse, debate about families encompasses a diversity of viewpoints. Nothing in our society brings greater joy than being part of a happy, supportive family; nothing in our society brings greater devastation than being part of a family that is destructive of the individual personalities of its members.

It is understandable that some people whose experience of family has been very negative will be cynical about the International Year of the Family and its aims. It is understandable that some whose experience of family is of the supportive type may lack a critical appreciation of the situation of those with negative experiences of families. While the dichotomy of supportive and destructive families is a simplistic presentation of people's experiences, it helps us to understand the level of emotion that surrounds discussions of family and family policy.

High emotion pervades also because, quite simply, families are so important. As Don Edgar has said, for the child, the family is the crucible of competence. It also has a lot to do with our level of self- esteem as adults. Research of support networks repeatedly shows that families are by far the most important source of practical, emotional and financial support in the society and, while reciprocity is part of the process, the giving of support within families is much more altruistic in nature than the provision of any other form of support. In this issue, Duncan Ironmonger puts a price on the value of unpaid work - but what price can we attach to the emotional stability that a majority of families provide to their members? If this is doubted, one only has to look at the record of the State as parent to many children. Studies of homeless young people in Australia show that the State frequently fails to provide a roof over the head of its wards.

In a pluralistic society, families are not owned by one ideology. Thus, we err if we seek the one proper model of family, the one proper way to bring up children, or the one proper approach to the care of aged persons by family members. On the other hand, policy responses cannot be tailored to meet the needs of each individual family and so the challenge is to find a proper balance.

This means that the formulation of family policies is not easy. A policy designed to be supportive of one family situation can simultaneously cause problems in another situation. While it would be highly desirable to have family impact statements similar to environmental impact statements whenever new policy is considered, we should be aware that such statements would need to assess impacts on different types of families in different circumstances. Indeed, impacts will often be variable for different members of families. For example, it is not uncommon that policies aimed at improving the income situation of one-income couples also operate at the same time as a work disincentive for the partner who is not working.

Formulation of family policy, therefore, requires a broad appreciation of the totality of family experiences. It involves also an understanding of social changes affecting families and individuals in Australia. Without this, policy can have a hit-or-miss character: formulated in narrow policy areas on the basis of myth or ideological prejudice. Given the rapidity and complexity of social change, basic social research is even more important today than it was when the Institute was founded in 1980.

Priority Issues for Families

I have chosen the authors of the papers in this special issue of Family Matters on the basis of the principles I have described above. That is, all authors have a broad understanding of families in Australia in combination with an appreciation of the complexity of family policy. The various authors have been asked to address possible directions for Australia in relation to a range of issues related to families. The issues are those identified as priority issues by the National Council for the International Year of the Family. Authors were selected for their particular expertise in relation to the issue in question, but reflect a diversity of viewpoints.

Family Diversity

Much of the early media discussion of families in this International Year was focused upon the definition of the family. Robyn Hartley and I argue that this approach ignores the everyday realities and diversity of people's experiences. We discuss diversity in terms of family composition, economic wellbeing, culture, language and religion. To be fair and just to all, we argue, policy must take account of all the main social and cultural settings in which adults and children live.

With some exceptions, the Australian experience has been one of diversity as a source of dynamism rather than of division. This, of course does not mean that 'anything goes', but rather that an informed and tolerant society with a commitment to human rights will draw its own limits.

Economic Value of Unpaid Work

Being an informed society depends upon the quality of information that is gathered. Duncan Ironmonger argues that, in ignoring the economic value of unpaid work, we discount the importance of caring in our society. He estimates that the value of care provided by families and households, without recompense, is at least as great as the output of the entire 'market' economy. His estimates explain why evaluations of broad-based, family support programs almost invariably show a substantial cost benefit, yet we persist in structuring our support programs primarily around those who qualify by being in a dismal state of disadvantage following family disintegration.

Integration of Private and Social Responsibility

Broad-based family support benefits us all. As Bettina Cass argues, all sectors of the community benefit when families have access to education and training, jobs, adequate income, good housing, health care, community services and a sustainable natural and built environment. It is increasingly recognised that dynamic and successful economies are distinguished less and less by their access to traditional factors of production (land, labour and capital) than by a milieu that promotes innovation and a ferment of ideas. Such environments are socially as well as economically healthy. Businesses, thus, will benefit from community investment in social as well as physical infrastructure.

Cass calls for the integration of private and social responsibility for families through strengthened partnerships between families, governments, businesses and other community groups.

Disadvantaged Families

Broad-based family support provides greatest assistance to families that face disadvantages of various types, but these families also require support that is targeted to their specific needs. The sources of disadvantage addressed by the IYF National Council include unemployment, working families with low incomes, non-English-speaking background, sole parenthood, aboriginality, disability or chronic illnesses and locational disadvantage.

Alison McClelland addresses the first four of these disadvantages in her article. She sets her discussion within the context of an evident trend towards greater inequality in Australia. Our notion of everyone's right to a 'fair go' is put in question by this trend. Over 800,000 children do not have an employed parent; the stresses placed on families mean that an intergenerational dynamic is created.

The most difficult problem faced by working families with low incomes, according to McClelland, is the affordability of housing. Christine Kilmartin argues in her paper that housing costs stratify our society leading to concentrations of disadvantaged people in particular localities or regions. Disadvantage then becomes self- perpetuating as people in depressed regions, intent on mere survival, find it difficult to create the kind of innovative milieu that will turn their circumstances around. Kilmartin places a high value on appropriate training as a means of changing the circumstances of depressed regions, but she acknowledges that, in a limited number of cases, we need to be able to plan for decline.

McClelland points out that sole parents, both male and female, have lower labour force participation rates than their counterparts in couple families. There is a great deal of evidence that the support of a spouse makes it easier for a parent to take up paid employment. This is the disadvantage experienced by sole parents that leads to further problems. Accessible and affordable child care is an obvious form of broad-based family support that addresses the particular disadvantage of sole parents. Inadequate command of English language disadvantages people in obtaining employment. Many migrants who arrived on the wave of the boom in the late 1980s are now high and dry in a recession-affected labour market. In addition, economic restructuring has had a differentially greater impact on older migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds and they now face limited opportunities for re-employment. As McClelland says, migrant families have a right to a better deal.

Australia's indigenous people face the greatest levels of disadvantage of any group in the community. The causes and consequences are eloquently described in the paper by Mick Dodson. Pointing to the confluence of 1993 as the International Year of Indigenous peoples and 1994 as the Year of the Family, Dodson concludes: 'When indigenous families can say that we enjoy the security, health and cultural integrity which is our right, this country can move with clear conscience to the next international year.'

Peter Fisher notes the emphasis that the Commonwealth places on employment for persons with a disability. Up to half a million Australians with a disability are capable of employment, provided the job is compatible with their disability. He describes two new programs , Jobnet and the Supported Wage System, which are specifically designed to assist disabled persons in seeking employment.

Workers with Family Responsibilities

The supportive workplace is not only important for the disabled but also for all workers with family responsibilities. Ilene Wolcott, in her article, encourages employers to explore ways to structure work to allow greater flexibility for employees to meet work and family obligations with the fewest barriers to career pathways. She reminds us that the pursuit of flexibility cannot ignore the need for families to have an adequate income. In an age in which business success is increasingly reliant upon commitment and innovation, workplaces that are not family-friendly will fall behind. In contrast, Wolcott points to the many successes of companies that have responded to the family needs of their workers.

Sharing Paid Work and Family Life

Wolcott also shows how gender equity is inextricably bound up with policies that support the needs of workers with family responsibilities. The theme of gender equity is taken up directly by Graeme Russell. He argues that men and women should have equal opportunities to participate in both paid work and family life. He supports his argument with research that shows that both men and women express a concern for greater balance in the two sides of their lives, paid work and family.

My own view is that gender equity is on a generational wave that will not be stopped. The next generation of young people - those under 20 years today - free of the tired compromises of the baby-boom generation, will change the world in this regard.

Human Rights

Moira Rayner addresses what for me is the fundamental philosophical question underlying development of family policy. At base, who is family policy for, the family or the family member, that is, for the group or for the individual? The answer, as Rayner argues convincingly, can only be that policy is directed ultimately to the wellbeing of the individual. This is plainly obvious in the community's right to intervene to protect vulnerable people in situations of family violence. However, the principle applies universally. For example, policies aimed at improving group family income must include an assessment of the effects of that policy on individual family members. The ultimate aim of all family policy is to sustain and improve the wellbeing of the individual family member working through the context of family relationships. (See McDonald, P. (1993), 'Social policy in Australia: the family dimension', Family Matters, No.34, May, pp.44-46)

Family Crisis

There are two broad approaches to the alleviation of family crises. The first is the structural approach of reforms and interventions that prevent or alleviate the crisis. The second is the therapeutic approach, helping people to work through their problems and to come out the other side with hope of a better future.

David Eldridge brings his experience to bear in arguing for better structural support for families. Food, shelter and employment are the base requirements but, he points out, the importance to people's wellbeing of strong local support networks cannot be over emphasised. This emphasis upon maintenance of local networks is counter to the economic rationalist viewpoint that unemployed people 'must move' to find work.

Lawrie Moloney brings his experience to bear in arguing for a personalised approach to therapy with a systemic and family orientation. Eldridge and Moloney have the experience to acknowledge that both the structural and therapeutic approaches are important components of the alleviation of the crises that we all face at some time in our lives.

Family Violence

The final articles in this special issue discuss the issue of violence within the family setting. Violence as an expression of power or frustration is a shameful element of our culture. Patricia Easteal deals with violence against women in the home while Marianne James addresses both child and elder abuse. Both authors describe the progress we have made in dealing with prevention of violence against vulnerable family members. Easteal points out that progress is often hampered by the lack of a consistent approach by the law (laws differ from State to State), by police, by courts, by health and other professionals - a pattern reflecting ambivalence in the broader society towards the use of violence.

A strong research finding is that use of violence is intergenerational: most abusers have been abused as children. As a consequence, effective child abuse prevention must develop from a strong children and family services base, as argued by James.

While protection of the vulnerable is paramount in the short-term, in the long-term broad cultural change is the only way we will see progress in this area, no matter how difficult that may seem. This should be a central focus of this International Year.


Each of the papers in this collection relate to one of the nine key priority issues affecting families which have been identified by the National Council for the International Year of the Family. Division into nine issues can obscure the interrelationships between the issues. The next stage in the discussion should include a more holistic approach to families, a vision of where we would like to see Australian families in the future and the steps we need to take to achieve that vision.