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Family Matters No. 54 - September 1999

Developing a national family policy

Kevin Andrews

Abstract

Evidence suggests that the breakdown of marriages and the disintegration of family structures is a common factor in a range of worsening social problems such as youth suicide, youth homelessness, child abuse, and alcohol and drug abuse among teenagers. The author argues that the challenge for public policy is to develop strategies that strengthen marriage and relationships. He outlines initiatives implemented by the Federal Coalition government since 1996, and identifies and discusses three core components of a broad family policy: a specific commitment to family policy; taxation reform that recognises the cost to parents of raising children; and the importance of supporting marriage.

Evidence suggests that the breakdown of marriages and the disintegration of family structures is a common factor in a range of worsening social problems such as youth suicide, youth homelessness, child abuse, and alcohol and drug abuse among teenagers.The challenge for public policy is to develop strategies that strengthen marriage and relationships.

Over the past few decades, national material prosperity, both in Australia and elsewhere in the industrialised world, has improved. But few people would dispute that the life of our children is more uncertain today than at any stage since the Second World War. Youth suicide has increased to tragic levels; tens of thousands of young people are estimated to be homeless; reports of child abuse rise each year; alcohol and drug abuse among teenagers has increased markedly; and hundreds of thousands of children are growing up with single parents.

While the causes of these problems are complex, a common factor is the breakdown of marriages and the disintegration of family structures. In To Have and to Hold, the Parliamentary report on strategies to strengthen marriage and relationships, the House of Representatives Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs (1998) surveyed the research about the impact of marriage, separation and divorce on the health of individuals and on children, both at the time and in their subsequent adulthood. As Professor William Doherty has noted: 'For adults, a stable, happy marriage is the best protector against illness and premature death, and for children, such a marriage is the best source of emotional stability and good physical health.'

A considerable body of research evidence indicates that adults and children are at increased risk of mental and physical problems due to marital distress. There is conclusive evidence to show that marriage is a 'healthy environment' associated with lower mortality and morbidity, and strong evidence that the process of divorce leaves men, women and children vulnerable to ill-health.

In a recent review of the literature, Professor Linda Waite, the University of Chicago professor of sociology and a past president of the American Population Association, observed: 'In a variety of ways and along a number of dimensions, married men and women lead healthier lives than the unmarried. This includes more drinking, substance abuse, drinking and driving, and generally living dangerously among single men. Married women more often have access to health insurance. Divorced and widowed men and women are more likely to get into arguments and fights, do dangerous things, take chances that could cause accidents. The married lead more ordered lives, with healthier eating and sleeping habits. Marriage improves both men's and women's psychological wellbeing. Perhaps, as a result, married men and women generally live longer than single men and women.' (Waite 1997)

The findings also relate to children, with studies showing that divorce has both a short-term and a long-term impact on children, and that this impact often extends into adult life with consequences for health, family life, educational performance and occupational status.

Professor Norval Glenn (1987), then editor of the Journal of Family Issues, wrote that the views of leading family scholars were beginning to shift from what he described as 'continuity-sanguineness' about the condition of the family to 'change-concern'. He indicated that scholars were becoming less likely to view current family trends as a process of gradual and even beneficial adaptation, and increasingly likely to view them as new and socially harmful. A decade later he confirmed the outlook: 'Not all family social scientists participated in this shift, but it is significant that the most prominent scholars and those most directly involved in the relevant research were most likely to do so.'

An example of the shift is the work of Professor Paul Amato. In 1987, while a fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Amato had written in Children in Australian Families: The Growth of Competence that harmful stereotypes such as 'staying together for the sake of the children' prevented us from seeing families as they really are. Amato's latest research, published in 1997 as A Generation at Risk, found that only one quarter to a third of divorces end up being better for the children than if the parents had stayed together. By contrast, about 70 per cent of divorces end low-conflict marriages which, for the children, would have been better continued.

Liberal and conservative scholars alike increasingly remark on the consequences of a devaluing of marriage on the wellbeing of children. The renowned scholar of family studies, Urie Bronfenbrenner (1994), has commented: 'There has been a progressive disarray at an accelerating rate of the disorganisation of the family in the western world.' Australians can take little heart from international comparisons. United Nations demographic surveys indicate the trend of child poverty, family fragmentation, divorce, out of wedlock births, and teenage deaths is accelerating. As Bronfenbrenner asserts, 'amongst post-industrial societies, families, children, adolescents and youth are at the greatest risk in English-speaking countries'. Australia is no exception.

Despite claims from time to time that family structure is irrelevant to positive outcomes for children, research evidence to the contrary is mounting. The veteran New York Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1989) has observed, that historically poverty derived from unemployment and low wages; today it derives from family structure. The scholarly Council on Families in America concluded in a report to the nation in 1995 that the mounting evidence 'points to one striking conclusion: the weakening of marriage has had devastating consequences for the wellbeing of children'. The Council did not claim that the weakening of marriage was the only factor contributing to the decline of child wellbeing, but said it was by far the most important causal factor. Obviously unemployment and other economic factors also contribute to the general uncertainty facing many young people.

Instead of only treating the symptoms of marriage and family breakdown (such as homelessness), we need to view these issues, at least partially, as manifestations of relationship dysfunction. Otherwise we will fail to address part of the cause of growing societal problems.

A policy framework

It is a peculiarity of the modern era that national debate has been framed, almost exclusively, in economic terms, ignoring the social, the cultural, indeed, the spiritual dimensions of national life. There are three bases to a just and healthy society - a vital market, an efficient and caring state, and a vibrant community.

A vital market

Given the history of this century, there can be little debate that a vital market is a necessary element of economic growth, adequate social welfare, and democratic freedom. The fall of the Berlin Wall marked more than the end of a particular ideological regime; it marked also the failure of the command system, both as a harbinger of economic progress and as a vehicle for human rights.

An efficient and caring state

However, the market does not and cannot alone deliver a just society. There will always be those who are poor, ill, disabled, unemployed, or in need of care. There will be projects of societal interest, ranging from the defence of the nation, through the promotion of adequate health and education, and the protection of the environment, to the provision of the infrastructure necessary for an adequately functioning community. 

Sometimes the debate about the role of the market and the state is simplified to two opposing propositions, one in favour of the market, and the other in favour of the state. The reality is that both are important. The question, for example, should not be one of intervention versus non intervention. All governments intervene in the economy. The real issue is for what purpose the intervention is made, and how efficient is the outcome. 

But both markets and governments can lead to injustice. The notion that all aspects of society can be treated as a commodity can lead to untrammelled consumerism, in which the interests of some are ultimately ignored. Even in economic terms, this is dangerous, as Australians found with very low savings, rising debts, and increasing interest payments. On the other hand, the suppression of the market, and the all-knowing hand of government in many parts of the world this century has led to some of the worst forms of totalitarianism imaginable. A just and healthy society requires a balance between the market and the state. It here that the community is important.

A vibrant community

Because individuals gain meaning and identity from their relationships with others, a liberal democracy dedicated to full and free human development cannot afford to ignore the conditions that are most conducive to the fulfilment of that ideal. If we do, then liberal democracy neglects the very basis of its own maintenance. For it is in the institutions of civil society - in families, and in voluntary associations such as churches, charitable agencies, even sporting and cultural clubs - that democracy is sustained, by balancing the power of both market and state, and by helping to counter both consumerist and totalitarian tendencies. 

The Harvard scholar, Mary Ann Glendon (1991) writes: 'The myriad of associations that generate social norms are the invisible supports of, and the sine qua non for, a regime in which individuals have rights. Neither the older political and civil rights, nor the newer economic and social rights, can be secure in the absence of the social arrangements that induce those who are disadvantaged by the rights of others to accept the restrictions and interferences that such rights entail.' 

In other words, if we cannot preserve and support the institutions of community in which relationships are developed and nurtured, then we are not merely placing at risk the welfare of many people, particularly the young and the elderly, we are weakening the very foundations of democracy itself. Of all political systems, democracy most depends upon the competence and character of its citizens. A liberal democracy presupposes civic virtue to a higher degree than any other form of government. 

In recent years, political discussion in many western nations has been dominated by the goal of reducing the size of government. As government, including the burgeoning welfare state, is viewed as the problem, limiting and decentralising it is adopted as a solution. There are limits to this approach. If the welfare state cannot solve our social crisis, then dismantling it, by itself, will not necessarily reverse all social problems. Hence the need to strengthen the institutions of civil society. 

This sector of civil society embraces those relationships which are independent of the state but provide an environment in which children are formed in the virtues of citizenship and in which adults are encouraged to practise them. Of these institutions, the family is the most important, as it is the first and most critical environment for the development of human competence and civic virtue.

If the human person is at the centre of every social institution, then the family, as the primary place of socialisation, needs to be a community of free and responsible persons who are encouraged to live marriage as a project of love which contributes to the vitality of civil society. How we support marriage then, as the protective institution of family, particularly the welfare of children, is of profound importance. It is, in the words of Glendon, a 'seedbed of virtue'.

Family policy

How should we treat families? The National Commission on America's Urban Families (1993) identified three prevailing national responses to the trend of family fragmentation, namely: deny the problem; treat the symptoms; and change the economy. The Commission stated: 'Each of these approaches is championed by serious, sincere people. Each contains elements of truth and insight.' But it found that these responses, both individually and as a group, to be fundamentally inadequate because 'they do not contain the realistic possibility of halting or reversing the personal and societal problems that stem from the trend of family fragmentation.'

Family policy should be founded on two principles which recognise and support the existence of the key mediation or bridging structures in society such as family and voluntary associations. These principles are: first, public policy should protect and foster family; and second, wherever possible, public policy should utilise the family as its agent. These two principles establish a minimum and maximum position. In some policy areas, government should leave families alone, or at least adopt a neutral position towards them. In others, it should utilise the family itself or other mediating structures to deliver programs of assistance.

Since its election in 1996, the Federal Coalition government has implemented a number of initiatives in family policy, including:

  • the restructuring the former Department of Social Security into the new Department of Family and Community Services, and the appointment of a Minister for Family and Community Services;
  • the consolidation of a number of family-related services (such as child support) and family relationships services within the new departmental structure;

  • the establishment of a number of advisory committees and councils to report on areas such as youth homelessness, and suicide prevention;

  • the introduction of measures in the taxation system that specifically recognise families with children; and

  • the implementation of a National Families Strategy following the To Have and To Hold report.

These measures point to a number of policy directions:

  • the desire to group family programs in one structure;
  • the emphasis on preventive measures and family as the agent of its own destiny, rather than merely the recipient of welfare; 
  • a partnership between government and community organisations; 
  • the specific endorsement of a national families policy; and
  • the acceptance that the costs of raising children should be recognised in taxation policies.

Underlying these directions is a policy approach outlined by the Prime Minister in his 'Australia Unlimited' speech (Howard 1999): 'Our approach supports the social institutions, such as the family, which uphold values of independence, personal responsibility, tolerance, respect for individual dignity, self-reliance, maximising individual potential, and upholding an obligation to other members of the community. But we do so in a way which recognises that the modern circumstances facing families are different to what they were in previous times, that financial relationships between family members are different, and that the increased independence of women has had, and will continue to have, important implications in the evolution of policymaking on social issues.

'Our modern conservatism in social policy seeks to achieve a more productive balance between poverty alleviation and incentives to avoid poverty. Our aim is to build a modern social safety net which is not founded on expanding the welfare state but on lessening welfare dependence and broadening the choices available to individuals, families and communities. Our focus - whether it be in health policy, or the anti-drugs strategy, or homelessness, or youth suicide, or family breakdown, or any other social problem - is on tackling problems at their source rather than simply living with and trying to ameliorate their consequences.'

There are at least three core components of a broad family policy: a specific commitment to family policy; taxation reform that recognises the cost to parents of raising children; and the importance of supporting marriage.

Specific commitment

Despite political rhetoric about families, few nations have a national family policy. Families are treated as welfare recipients, or the aged, or defence force personnel, or public housing occupants, or taxpayers - but not as families. Even where programs have an impact upon families, they are compartmentalised into stages: infancy, childhood, youth, and the aged. 

The failure of family policies to emerge as a distinct issue partly reflects the failure to agree on a common definition of 'family'. But as Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1989) observed: 'A nation without a conscious family policy leaves to chance and mischance an area of social reality of the upmost importance, which in consequence will be exposed to the untrammelled and frequently thoroughly undesirable impact of policies arising in other areas.' 

The first step to treating families seriously is for governments and political parties to adopt specific family policies. Surveys repeatedly indicate that family life is a popular aspiration for people. As many as 90 per cent of young people say that they wish to marry, and up to 70 per cent of Australians report that their greatest satisfaction comes from their family. Even the younger generation of Australians who have grown up with the reality of divorce in their lives aspire to marriage as a life-long commitment. 

Even if the fundamental philosophical position that democracy is based upon healthy families is not accepted, the human and economic consequences of family fragmentation requires government to make an effective response to social stability and cohesion. As the Parliamentary Committee found, the cost of marriage breakdown in Australia is between $3 and $6 billion a year.

Hence the decision by the Australian government to create a new Department of Family and Community Services, replacing the Department of Social Security, and bringing together a range of government programs dealing with families, is a welcome development in the creation of a national approach to families. The announcement of the development of a National Families Strategy, in response to the To Have and To Hold report, is a reflection of this first response. A further development could involve the introduction of a Family Policy Grid for all departments, as pioneered in the Canadian province of Alberta. 

Taxation reform

Changes to the tax code that recognise the costs to parents of raising children is a second core component of family policy.The Coalition's 1996 Family Tax Initiative increased the tax free threshold by $1000 for each dependent child up to the age of 16 and each dependent secondary student up to 18 years. In addition, single income families, including sole parents, receive a further $2500 increase in their tax free threshold if they have a child under five. For a single income family of three children, one of whom is under five years, the tax free threshold is almost doubled.

The taxation reform package passed by the Parliament in I999 builds on these initiatives. Apart from reductions in personal income taxes, and the increase and simplification of family benefits, the tax free threshold increases under the Family Tax Initiative will be doubled. From 1 July 2000, all single income families, including sole parents, with one child under five years will have an effective tax free threshold of $13,000 - more than double the new general threshold.

This is a far-reaching recognition of families in the taxation system. It is an important recognition that two economies exist within the nation: the market economy, where exchanges take place through money and where competition and efficiency drive decisions; and the home economy, where exchanges take place through the altruistic sharing of goods and services among family members.

As Allan Carlson and David Blankenhorn wrote recently (1998): 'It is precisely the home economy - acts of unpaid production ranging from parental child care and nursing of the sick and the elderly to gardening, home carpentry, and food preparation - that is the organising principle of family life and the basis of civil society. Every marriage creates a new home economy. These little economies are largely undetected in our measurement of the gross national product, just as they are usually beyond the reach of tax collectors. But they are vitally important. If they thrive, the wellbeing of children and society as a whole improves.'

Supporting marriage

A third core component of social policy is particularly supporting marriage as comprehensively outlined in the To Have and To Hold report. The subsequent National Families Strategy includes the establishment of a new Marriage and Family Council to advise the government; a trial voucher funding scheme for marriage education; promotion of research into marital stability; the development of relationship education in Secondary Schools; and a resolve to extend the maximum notice of Intention to Marry to 18 months from the current six months.

A critical area for marriage education is the early years of marriage. One third of separations occur before the third wedding anniversary. Add to this the high and increasing rate of cohabitation and the increased risks this places on the survival of the marriage, and it is clear that we must develop programs to support newly-weds through the early adjustment phase of marriage. It is also essential that we continue research into the different approaches to marriage education, so that we better understand what works for particular couples.

Conclusion

While we read from time to time sensational reports that marriage and family life is fast disappearing, a lifelong commitment to family remains a popular aspiration, even among our young people. Marriage and family life remain the optimal conditions for the socialisation and education of children's character and values, without which liberal democracy and civil society cannot properly flourish. For these reasons, we cannot ignore the trends affecting families today.

Just as economic reform has been the major policy challenge of the 1980s and 1990s, how we address family issues will be a central concern of the next decade. The tragedy of marriage breakdown is not just the millions of dollars it costs each year. It is the tragedy of the personal and emotional trauma which research increasingly indicates affects many children, even into their adulthood, and the consequent diminution of health, educational opportunities, and wellbeing, including the stability of relationships of children whose parents divorced.

The choice is clear. We can throw up our hands in despair, unwilling or unable to propose a solution, with all the social consequences that follow. Or we can take a positive step forward, committed to the aspiration so many people share, in the hope that with practical support and encouragement, we can continue to build a strong nation based on a healthy civil society with its foundation of stable family life.


References

  • Andrews, Kevin & Curtis, Michelle (I998), Changing Australia, Federation Press, Sydney.
  • Amato, Paul & Booth, Allan (I997), A Generation at Risk: Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.
  • Amato, Paul (I987), Children in Australian Families: The Growth of Competence, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Berger, Peter & Neuhaus, Richard (I977), To Empower People, American Enterprise Institute, Washington DC.
  • Bronfenbrenner, Urie (I994), 'Address', Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Carlson, Allan & Blankenhorn, David (I998), 'Marriage and taxes', The Weekly Standard, 9 February.
  • Council on Families in America (I995), Marriage in America, Council on Families in America, New York.
  • Gallagher, Maggie & Blankenhorn, David (I997), 'Family feud', The American Prospect, July - August.
  • Galston, William (I994), Beyond the Murphy Brown Debate, Council on Families in America, New York
  • Glendon, Mary Ann (I99I), Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse. Free Press, New York.
  • Glendon, Mary Ann & Blankenhorn David (I995), Seedbeds of Virtue: Sources of Competence, Character and Citizenship in American Society Madison Books, Lanham MD.
  • Glenn, Norval D. (I987), 'Continuity versus change, sanguineness versus concern: views of the American family in the late I980s', Journal of Family Issues, vol. 8, no. 4.
  • Harding, Ann & Szukalska, Agnieszka (I998), A Portrait of Child Poverty in Australia in I995 - 96, National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, Canberra.
  • Home Office (UK) (I998), Supporting Families: A Consultation Document, The Home Office, London.
  • House of Representatives Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs (I998), To Have and To Hold: Strategies to Strengthen Marriage and Relationships, Parliament of Australia, Canberra.
  • Howard, John (1999), Speech to the Australian Unlimited conference, See 'Society revisited', Marriage, Family & Society Issues, no. 2, pp. 31-35.
  • Institute for American Values (I998), A Call to Civil Society: Why Democracy Needs Moral Truths, The Institute, New York.
  • Ladbrook, D. (I997), 'Why marriage matters: an Australian perspective' Threshold, vol. 57, pp. 9-I0.
  • National Advisory Council on Youth Suicide Protection (I998), National Action Plan for Youth Suicide Protection, Department of Health and Aged Care, Canberra.
  • National Commission on America's Urban Families (I993), Families First, The Commission, Washington DC.
  • Moynihan, Daniel Patrick (I989), 'Towards a post-industrial social policy', The Public Interest, Summer.
  • Prime Ministerial Youth Homelessness Taskforce (I998), Putting Families in the Picture, Department of Family and Community Services, Canberra.
  • Tapper, Alan (I990), The Family in the Welfare State, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
  • Waite, Linda (I997), 'Why marriage matters', Threshold, vol. 57, pp. 4-8.
  • Walters, Kathleen J. (I997), 'Marriage southern style', Threshold, vol. 57, pp. 3-5.

Kevin Andrews MP is the Federal Member for Menzies in the Coalition Government. He is Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, which produced the report To Have and To Hold, and Chairman of the Government Policy Committee on Family and Community Services.

On 9 September 1999, as part of the seminar series organised and hosted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Kevin Andrews addressed Institute staff and visitors on the topic of developments and directions in family policy. This article is an edited version of that address.