Social policy in Australia: The family dimension


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Content type
Family Matters article

May 1993


Social policy deals with the care and development of individuals in the society according to a set of standards which the society sets out to achieve. Sometimes these standards are described in the form of rights; however, this article argues, more often they are the result of the historical development of the policies of competing political interests. The author explores the future of the family as an organising principle in social policy; argues that we need to give up on family policies which do not recognise that the family extends beyond the front door; discusses the need for a sensible balance of public and private support; reports that findings from the Institute's Australian Living Standards Study show that Australia does not do too badly in this regard at present, particularly with broad services such as health and education, and also income support; concludes that nevertheless, we need to focus much more on areas in which we do not do well, and suggests some principles underpinning social policy with a family focus.

Embedded within all social policy are assumptions about dependency and responsibility - that is, who or what is responsible for the care and development of which individuals. The care and development of individuals can wholly or partly be the responsibility of four basic units of the society: the State, the community, the family and the individuals themselves.

In our age of fiscal restraint, the art is not so much to see that the standards are achieved but to be able to pass responsibility for their achievement off to someone else. Of course, the passing off of responsibility is not new in Australia; we have had a ninety-year history of the three tiers of the State passing off responsibility to one another. A recent example has been the acceptance by the States of responsibility for unsupported people aged 0-14 years and by the Commonwealth for people aged 16 and over, with 15- year- olds falling through the gap. However, Commonwealth- State divisions of responsibility are not the subject of this paper. Rather, the focus is on the extent to which responsibility is assumed by the State (in general) or by the family.


The political dimensions of Right and Left and Old and New, indicated in the accompanying diagram, provide a framework for discussion of the balance of family and responsibility for the care and development of individuals. The diagram* shows a series of dichotomies, and dichotomies are always simplistic. On the other hand, they always make a good basis for discussion.


Being 'Old' in politics means that you attach major responsibility to the family as the agent of care and responsibility; being 'New' means that you are more likely to see individuals as being responsible for themselves. Being 'Left' means you attach major responsibility to the State as an agent of care and responsibility and being 'Right' means that you are more likely to see care and responsibility as private matters.

The Old debate between Right and Left which predominated until the 1970s was about the size of the State and, particularly, about the size of the welfare State. Family was taken for granted in this debate as having the major, immediate responsibility for individuals, and the model of the family that was taken for granted was the nuclear family of mum, dad and the kids with only dad being in the labour force - the breadwinner model. In Australia, this model of the family underpinned the Basic Wage, upon which wage setting was based from 1905 to 1973. The Old Right and the Old Left may have argued over the level of the wage, but not over the nuclear family as its basis of assessment.

The New Left had its era of prominence in the 1970s when the State introduced a series of reforms which provided individuals with greater rights and opportunities. Many of these changes were funded by the State (for example, free tertiary education, social security for all including sole parents, the national health system), while others were established as rights through the legal system (for example, no-fault divorce, abortion, equal pay). These changes enabled individuals to be more independent of group structures such as the family.

The early days of the ascendancy of the New Right took the form of reaction to the excesses of the 1970s. It was not difficult to point to excesses in the form of support by the State of the bizarre, inefficiencies in the public sector, industry policies and working conditions that could not stand competition from the newly-emerging economies, and so on. The thrusts were for deregulation, monetary policy, smaller government, lower taxes, competition, the supremacy of the market, self-sufficiency, user pays and cutting back of the welfare sector.


In the 1970s and early 1980s, as both the New Left and New Right philosophies promoted the rights of the individual, family as an organising principle played little part in their policies. The fringe of the New Left indeed was actively anti- family and, to the New Right, the family was irrelevant. However, by the mid-1980s, family was back on the scene (Berger and Berger 1983; Moynihan 1987). The reintroduction of the family into political debate was led by the Right, perhaps because of the residual strength of the Old Right compared to the Old Left or because the gulf between Old and New was not as great on the Right as it was on the Left.

Initially, both Right and Left paid lip service to family in the form of political rhetoric which dressed up almost any policy as family policy. For example, in Victoria, a reduction in the cost of motor vehicle registrations was described as a family policy and, at the Federal level, tax cuts, although delivered to individuals, were described in terms of how much better off families would be.

The reality was sometimes different to the rhetoric. For example, an analysis of tax changes in Australia between 1983-84 and 1989-90 showed that single people with incomes around four times average weekly earnings had received tax cuts of over $100 per week while one-income families with incomes around average weekly earnings were paying slightly more tax. The same analysis showed that between 1983-84 and June 1991, changes in real disposable incomes were more favourable to single people than to families with children at all but the lowest income levels (AIFS 1990).


With pressure to cut back the level of welfare expenditure, an 'unStated' family policy of both the Right and the Left has been for the State to progressively pass responsibility for care and development of individuals back to the family.

In Australia, the real value of family elements of the tax system, especially family allowance, has declined. Family allowance has been income-tested. Unemployment benefits for young people have been reduced up to age 21 on the assumption that families will support these young persons, the age of the youngest child in relation to eligibility for the sole parent pension has been reduced from less than 18 to less than 16 years and consideration is now being given to a further reduction to less than 12 years. The Child Support Scheme sets out to return some of the cost of marriage breakdown to the parents.

Deinstitutionalisation has proceeded without the community supports that were envisaged would accompany it; the assumption is that the family will step in and provide the necessary support. While some of these changes have much to recommend them, there is a danger that privatisation in this sphere has come to mean 'we don't want to know about it' or 'families can look after their own, and bad luck if they don't'. The tendency is to use family more as a means of expenditure reduction rather than as a force for positive change within the society.


We can continue in this direction. There are many possibilities. We could, as some Asian countries do, make adult children responsible for the care and support of their aged parents, we could extend the user-pays principle to fully privatise the major State services such as education, health and transport. We can eliminate the social security safety net and, as has been suggested, rely upon the generosity of the Australian people to support the needy through private systems. The New argument runs that this direction would lead to lower tax regimes and higher levels of private investment. Employment and wages would improve with increased productivity, and we would all be better off.

This direction takes us full circle and will return us to the Old debate between Right and Left - a class debate between privilege and disadvantage. There is little evidence that those who had the money in the private sector during the 1980s used it for the benefit of all. Indeed, the decade could only be described as a disaster for productive investment.

Yet we have come into the 1990s with a renewed commitment to the economic rationalist line: 'this time we will get it right, we have learnt from the mistakes of the past'. Universal services paid through the tax system are available to all. As such, they are progressive in nature because they provide a larger relative benefit to the poor than they do to the rich. A service paid for by the user, on the other hand, will be regressive as the payment will represent a larger relative fraction of the income of the poorer person. If the cost of the service is large, it may be taken out of the reach of the poorer person.

This does not preclude the delivery of services by the private sector 'on contract' to government. There are areas of human services requiring intensive client contact that are better handled outside the regulations that bedevil the government sector (McCaughey 1992).

In general, however, while we need to be concerned about the efficiency with which public services are delivered, if they are efficiently delivered they are certainly more fairly delivered than privatised services. More than 100 years ago, universal primary education was introduced with this rationale; will we preside over its privatisation?


In considering the future of the family as an organising principle in social policy, we are held back by limited notions of family and by limited notions of family policy.

The conception of family predominant in Old politics still underlies most social policy related to the family. While studies of family support networks repeatedly show that the isolated nuclear family household is a myth and probably always has been, the idealised morality of family which we carry from the past prevents us moving to a broader approach to family.

The August 1992 edition of Family Matters argues that for most of us the family extends beyond the household. Researchers are partly at fault in the retention of narrow conceptions of the family because we have continued to measure and describe families almost exclusively in the context of households. We are prepared to include multiple- family households in our definitions, but not multiple- household families. Yet, the evidence is overwhelming from the support networks approach that we live in multiple- household families. It is even possible that with modern means of transport and communication, the multiple- household family is increasing in significance.

It is only with a broad conception of families as just described that we can design policies for families that are set within the realities of family life in Australia and set within the context of what people themselves consider to be important. We need to give up on family policies which do not recognise that the family extends beyond the front door. Family is a beyond-household concept.


In defining family policies, we have a very strong tendency to compartmentalise or, perhaps, Departmentalise the components of family life, rather than attempting to examine the broad needs of the family. We identify a problem related to an individual, say unemployment. We then treat the problem as if it is an individual problem. Using the unemployment example, beyond social security income support, there is little attempt to consider the family dimension of the problem or to consider solutions which are family- rather than individual-oriented.

For example, there are now some 700,000 dependent children in Australia (about one in eight of all dependent children) who live in families which do not have an employed parent. We talk a lot about the unemployed individuals, but we do not hear much about the impacts on the children. Consider the impact on a child of the long-term unemployment of the child's father. Do we have policies dealing with the loss of the child's incentive or the alienation that the child will have towards the society? More police?

Aged care is another area in which a broader conception of family and policy is required. In the Household and Community Care (HACC) program, funds are often distributed to areas with a factor in the equation related to the number of aged people in the area who are living alone. This is not to suggest that this should not be the case, but it does indicate a lack of consideration of the existence of the family beyond the household who may be willing, and with some support, be able to care for the aged person living on their own. Aged care may be a matter, for example, of a more family-friendly workplace, so that people with the care of an aged person may be able to receive telephone calls at work, or leave the workplace for a short period, and so on. Or it may be a matter of the provision of occasional care for children. It may also be a matter of providing resources to the healthy aged to assist them to support their parents or friends.

Future policies with a family focus need to recognise the interaction between the various spheres in the life of an individual and take account of the interactions between individuals within a family. This is the framework underlying the Australian Living Standards Study now being conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (Brownlee 1991).


The balance between public and private support is at the heart of any attempt to design policies which recognise family as an organising principle. This paper makes the point that most people are not isolated from family and have family members who want to be involved in the support of those they consider to be family. As already discussed, this realisation has led governments in the recent past to withdraw services and income support on the grounds that families will look after their own, and there are many proposals around for an extension of this approach. We need to be careful in resisting this tendency that we are not arguing that the family should not be used as an organising principle in social policy.

Instead, we need to recognise that a sensible balance of public and private support is required. It is important to remember also that we do not do too badly in this regard at present. The Institute's Living Standards Study has examined the effects on families of the present economic recession (McDonald and Brownlee 1992). One of the principle conclusions of this research was that the support systems and services that we have in Australia are able to sustain families, at least in the short-term, if they are hit by unemployment. In terms of public support, their children can still go to school, they still have access to health care and they have income support. On the private side, banks did not foreclose when the mortgage had not been fully paid for some months (except where the family had almost no equity in the house) and the family beyond the household frequently provided financial assistance. Among all families in this outer area of Melbourne, 12 per cent of families had had assistance from family to pay their mortgage or rent and 17 per cent had received financial help from relatives for day to day needs over the relatively short period of the last 12 months.

In drawing up a social policy for the future, we therefore need to build upon what we already have in the public sphere, in particular the broad services such as health and education and also income support.

In addition, however, we need to focus much more attention on areas in which we do not do well, in particular providing support to families and persons who are responsible for the care of other family members. Besides financial support, tax policy, child care, respite care, and other activities mainly funded by the public sector, there need to be new initiatives in the industrial area in accordance with ILO Convention 156 on Workers with Family Responsibilities.

Some principles underpinning social policy with a family focus

  • Family and family relationships are the basic and fundamental means of support within the society.
  • The family remains the most important and most efficient means through which governments can provide social welfare. They should not be used as an excuse not to provide public assistance to families.
  • A combined, mutually supportive system of families, government, employer and community is the best and most efficient means of providing social support.
  • The maintenance of family values is not the problem. In general, families want to help their own members and they will do so with more real care and affection and at less cost than anyone else - but they cannot do it alone.
  • Family policy should attempt to be neutral regarding family type. In particular, policy needs to consider the reality of the family beyond the household.
  • Family policy should also be neutral in respect of gender - that is, it should not favour one sex over the other.
  • The policy should make provision for basic support to all families particularly in respect of the costs of raising children but should recognise that some families need more support than others.
  • The emphasis should be upon policies which enhance the quality of family life and are preventative in nature. A purely curative approach, picking up the pieces after the crisis has occurred, is ineffective and inefficient.
  • There should not be an automatic assumption that services should be delivered by the public or private sectors. However, whether public or private, every effort should be made through government systems to ensure that the service is affordable and accessible to all.
  • There must be recognition that a minority of people will be isolated from family support. These people will require a greater level of public support.

These principles accord the family a defined place in social policy, not a presumed place as in Old politics or no place as in New politics. The ultimate aim should be to sustain and improve the wellbeing of the individual, not the wellbeing of the family in some group sense. But there needs to be a recognition that the individual's wellbeing is often best served by working in the context of existing family relationships.


  • AIFS (1990), Taxes, Families and the Labor Party, 1990, Australian Families Transfer Project, Bulletin No. 8, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Berger, B. and Berger P. (1983), The War Over the Family: Capturing the Middle Ground, Doubleday and Co., New York.
  • Brownlee, H. (1991), Measuring Living Standards, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • McCaughey, J. (1992), Where Now? Homeless Families in the 1990s, Policy Background Paper No. 8, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • McDonald, P. and Brownlee, H. (1992), 'Living day to day: families in the recession', Family Matters, April 1992, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Moynihan, D. (1987), Family and Nation, Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, Orlando.
  • This paper was presented to the Joint PANZ-APA Meeting in Canberra, 25-26 September 1992.