Oxford Textbook of Public Health
Michael J. Puma
Social and demographic changes affecting families
Decline in birth and fertility rates
Decline in the size of households
Increase in cohabitation
Increase in the divorce rate
Rise in non-marital childbearing
Growth in female-headed households
More women in the labour force
Changes in family functions
Health and social policy affecting families
The United States
The family unit has been an integral part of our existence throughout recorded history. Even in prestate hunter–gatherer societies the family helped humans deal with the basic needs of our species. But what is a family? According to Mattessich and Hill (1987) it is a group of individuals related by kinship, residence, or close emotional attachments that display four common characteristics: (a) intimate interdependence and selective boundary maintenance; (b) the performance of certain key functions including physical maintenance, socialization and education, control of social and sexual behaviour, and sustaining family morale and motivation to perform roles inside and outside the family unit; (c) the acquisition of new members through procreation and the formation of sexual partnerships; (d) the launching of juvenile members from the family when they are mature. As the World Health Organization has noted (WHO 1985), the ability to perform these functions well ‘… is crucial for the attainment of health for all. As the basic social unit, the family has a determinant influence on the health and disease patterns of its members’.
An important context for understanding families today is the advent of the postindustrial ‘information age’ that is helping to drive profound social changes at the dawn of the twenty-first century, as did the transition to the industrial age in the late nineteenth century. For some, these changes spell disaster for the family institution. Pournelle, for example, warns that ‘… the family, at least as we know it, is under attack; and if trends continue the institution of the family will be greatly changed, greatly weakened, and may cease to exist’ (Pournelle 1997, p. 491). For others, such as Fukuyama (1999), the trends that we are observing today are simply adjustments to a new postindustrial social order, in the same way that prior human transitions—from hunter–gatherer to agricultural to industrial—were associated with major social ‘disruptions’. Only time will tell whether we are seeing the start of a decline in the family unit or a period of transition to a new evolving form.
In this chapter, we begin with an exploration of some of the major social and demographic changes affecting the family, and comment on the implications of these changes for health and well being. We then review some of the more important changes in government policies that are intended to alter or mediate the effect of these social transformations. The discussion is organized to begin with a focus on the United States, both because of the availability of a wealth of information and a rich base of research, and the current American position as a ‘bellwether’ of global social changes. This is then followed with a discussion of how similar trends have been seen in other industrial countries and, where possible, worldwide.
Social and demographic changes affecting families
Throughout most of the twentieth century, industrial nations had a shared idea of the ideal family. This symbol, what Goode (1993) has called the ‘classical family of Western nostalgia’, consisted of a married couple with a breadwinner father, a home-maker mother, and two or more children. By the end of the century, however, married couples in the United States with two or more own children only accounted for about 25 per cent of all households. Today, living arrangements, especially those involving children, have expanded to encompass a broad array of different situations reflecting significant transformations of the more traditional family structure. These changes are occurring in the United States and, to a greater or lesser degree, throughout the world, and have potentially important consequences for individual health and well being.
The trends shaping today’s families include innovations in medical technology that have given women greater control over their own fertility, thereby diminishing the role of reproduction as seen in declining birth rates. As a consequence, the importance of kinship has also changed as seen by the decline in marriage, the increase in cohabitation, the increase in divorce, and the rise in non-marital childbearing. These changes have, in turn, led to an increase in female-headed households and a substantial decrease in the size of households, particularly the growth of single-person households. The nature of work has also changed as the information age increasingly rewards mental rather than physical labour propelling more women into the labour force and changing the traditional male–female roles of provider and home-maker. Taken together, these changes have substantially altered traditional family functions and roles.
Decline in birth and fertility rates
As noted above, one of the core functions of the family is reproduction. Yet, by the end of the twentieth century fertility rates had dropped substantially in nearly all industrialized countries, and these same trends have been seen worldwide. Several factors have led to this drop in fertility, especially in industrialized countries. First, increased demands for education have extended the time that young adults invest in their training prior to entering the work force. Today, few young adults can afford to marry and have children early in life—in an economy where a college education is necessary for many jobs, such family formation impedes the completion of one’s education, especially for women. Second, there have been significant changes in equality for women. In most industrialized countries today, women are more highly educated, which improves their labour market opportunities and makes them more economically active and less financially dependent on their husbands. Finally, women are now more in control of their own fertility owing to the increasing awareness and use of birth control methods which, in many developing countries, has been supported by government policies encouraging smaller families (e.g. China’s one child per family policy).
The United States
Birth and fertility rates
From 1936 to 1957 birth rates (i.e. the number of live births per 1000 women) rose by 67 per cent, largely as a result of the postwar baby boom, but rates then dropped by 55 per cent in the following two decades, reaching a low of 15.5 in 1983 (Janis 1997). Following a brief increase, United States birth rates have continued their downward slide, declining to a new low of 14.8 in 1996 (US Bureau of the Census 1998a). Overall, the birth rate has fallen by nearly 40 per cent since 1960. For women under the age of 25, those in the prime childbearing years, the number of births declined by 20 per cent just between 1980 and 1996 (US Bureau of the Census 1998b).
Another way to examine the decline in births is to look at changes in fertility rates which are defined as the number of live births per woman of childbearing age. At the end of the twentieth century, United States fertility rates have dropped to a point where they are now just over the level required to maintain the current level of population (i.e. the ‘replacement level’) at an average of 2.07 children per woman (US Department of Health and Human Services 1999). However, fertility rates for Hispanic Americans have remained high, and in combination with high rates of recent immigration have led to a rapid increase in the percentage of United States children who are non-white (US Department of Health and Human Services 1999). In 1980, 74 per cent of United States children were non-Hispanic white; by 1997 this percentage had declined to 66 per cent, and is projected to drop to 55 per cent by 2020 (US Department of Health and Human Services 1999). In fact, if it were not for immigration and the higher birth rates of foreign-born women, the United States birth rates would have fallen even more dramatically since 1960.
Through the late 1980s, the pattern of falling birth and fertility rates in the United States was not accompanied by an associated decline in sexual activity. In 1970, 35 per cent of girls and 55 per cent of boys reported having had sex by age 18; by 1988, the percentages had increased to 56 per cent for girls and 73 per cent for boys (Popenoe 1998). More recent data, however, show a changing tide, with the proportion of females aged 15 to 19 who reported ever having sexual intercourse dropping to 50 per cent in 1995, although rates are higher for Hispanic and black teenagers (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics 1999).
At the same time, there have also been declines in the reported incidence of unprotected intercourse among teenagers and in the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), in large part due to the adoption of more conservative attitudes by youth and the introduction of health education in schools (Ku et al. 1998). Many youth now report using condoms or other forms of contraceptive protection when they have sex, and over the past decade the substantial rise in condom use among teenagers has been one of the major public health success stories in the United States. Between 1979 and 1988, condom use reported by male teenagers in the United States more than doubled, and by 1995 the rate had increased again by one-fifth. Universal protection has not yet been achieved, however. In 1995, 27 per cent of male teenagers had had unprotected sex in the previous 12 months (Sonenstein et al. 1998).
The United States has historically had one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the industrialized world. Each year, almost 1 million teenage girls in the United States become pregnant, and approximately 40 per cent of girls become pregnant at least once before reaching the age of 20 (Popenoe 1998). Such early childbearing in the United States is more common among girls from families of lower socio-economic status. For example, women in their twenties whose mothers did not finish high school were about five times more likely to have had a teenage birth than those whose mothers had a college education (US Department of Health and Human Services 1998).
However, in line with the reduction in teenage sexual activity, especially unprotected sexual intercourse, birth rates among United States teenagers have also fallen since 1991 after a substantial climb during the late 1980s. In 1997 the birth rate of 52.9 per 1000 among females aged 15 to 19 was at the same level last observed in 1988, and within three percentage points of the lowest rate observed in 1986. Birth rates have declined among both younger and older teenagers, among white, black, and Hispanic teenagers, and in all states except the District of Columbia (Ventura et al. 1998). Declines in the birth rate reflect real declines in pregnancy rates since rates of abortion have not increased at the same time.
These reductions in the incidence of early sexual activity are an important public health objective because sex at an early age is associated with more partners and more frequent sex, and the increased risks of STDs and HIV, and unintended pregnancy (National Center for Health Statistics 1999a). The extent to which early pregnancy has more far-reaching consequences for both mother and child has, however, been the subject of considerable debate, especially in the United States where research has shown that some young mothers end up doing rather well (Furstenberg et al. 1987; Duncan and Hoffman 1990). The problem has been trying to separate out the effects of early pregnancy from socio-economic conditions that existed prior to the pregnancy itself. That is, it is the case that, on average, teenage mothers are worse off on many dimensions than women who delay childbearing: teenage parenting is associated with lower educational attainment, lower earnings, and higher welfare dependency (Moore et al. 1995a, b), and teenage mothers are more likely to be poor at the end of their twenties, and more likely to raise their children alone (Furstenberg et al. 1987; Maynard 1997). But these conditions are not necessarily caused by the pregnancy itself. A recent review of the literature concludes that, although evidence on the socio-economic consequences of early pregnancy remains uncertain, it is clear that reducing early childbearing ‘… represents a potentially productive strategy for widening the pathways out of poverty or, at the very least, not compounding the handicaps imposed by social disadvantage’ (Hoffman 1998, p. 8).
There is, however, a relationship between maternal age and birth outcomes, with babies born to very young teenage mothers (under age 15) being at higher risk than 25- to 29-year-olds for birth complications, prematurity, low birthweight, neonatal death, and developmental delays (Hayes 1987; Reichman and Pagnini 1997). Children born to teenage mothers are also at greater risk of physical abuse and accidental injury, do less well in school, and are more likely to be teenage parents themselves (Furstenberg et al. 1987; Manlove 1997; Maynard 1997).
Although the negative consequences of early childbearing for girls and their babies are now widely recognized, less attention has been paid to the consequences for their male partners who are required to make an 18-year commitment to support the child, now that the legal establishment of paternity is expected in the United States and can easily be accomplished using genetic tests.
Birth and fertility rates
Birth rates have dropped even more dramatically throughout most of Western Europe. At the end of the 1990s, the average birth rate across the 15 countries that comprise the European Union was 10.9 births per 1000 women compared with the new United States low of 14.8.
Birth rates have, in fact, declined so much in many European Union countries that fertility rates are now below replacement levels, leading to projections of declining populations and higher proportions of elderly persons. Across the European Union the average fertility rate has declined by 40 per cent, from an average of about 2.39 children per woman of childbearing age in 1970 to an average of 1.44 in 1998 (Eurostat 1999). Fertility rates are highest in Ireland at 1.87 (but down 52 per cent from 3.93 in 1970), and lowest in Spain and Italy at 1.18 and 1.17 respectively (Eurostat 1999). As a consequence, Italy, Spain, and Germany are estimated to lose up to 30 per cent of their population each generation, barring additions to the population through new immigration (Fukuyama 1999).
According to Rothenbacher (1996b), the factors driving these changes include the increased availability and use of birth control, rising female educational levels (and associated increases in workforce participation), increasing decisions by couples to have fewer children or to forego children altogether, and a rising age of first marriage (and of first birth). In particular, European women are increasingly delaying their first pregnancy—fertility rates for women aged 15 to 19 years fell by 50 per cent throughout the European Union between 1975 and 1998 (Eurostat 1999). Although there is some variation across countries in Western Europe, it is now increasingly rare for a woman to have a baby before the age of 20—the average age of having a first child has risen from 24 in 1970 to nearly 29 in 1995, and across the European Union countries only 1 per cent of women aged 15 to 19 have children (Eurostat 1999). Moreover, the younger the generation, the higher the proportion that is childless. For example, 15 per cent of German women born in 1950 are childless compared with 26 per cent of women born in 1959 (Eurostat 1998).
Declining birth and fertility rates have not, however, been confined to Western Europe; many East European countries have seen declines as well. For example, between 1975 and 1998 the birth rate dropped by a dramatic 54 per cent in the Czech Republic (from 19.6 to 8.96), 41 per cent in Hungary from (from 18.4 to 10.7), 41 per cent in Romania (from 15.8 to 9.3), and 48 per cent in Poland (from 18.9 to 9.8) United Nations 1997). In large part, these changes are due to the dramatic upheavals associated with the break up of the socialist states in 1989 and 1990 throughout central, eastern, and southeastern Europe (Rothenbacher 1996a). These regions have experienced a substantial loss of population due to both emigration (for employment) and very low birth rates (well below replacement levels). But there are exceptions, such as the agriculturally oriented countries of Albania and Macedonia where fertility rates are among the highest in Europe. For the most part, families in these countries remain close to the traditional household of the early to mid-twentieth century with nearly universal marriage rates, very low rates of non-marital childbearing, a high share of extended families, and a low incidence of people living alone.
Elsewhere in the industrialized world, birth rates have declined similarly to the trends seen in the United States and Europe. In Canada the age at which a woman has her first baby has risen from 23 in 1971 to 26 in 1989 (Vanier Institute of the Family 1994), and from 1975 to 1998 birth rates declined by 20 per cent in Australia (from 16.9 to 13.5), by nearly 30 per cent in Israel (from 28.2 to 20.0), by 40 per cent in Japan (from 17.2 to 10.3), by 19 per cent in New Zealand (from 18.4 to 14.9), and by 23 per cent in Singapore (from 17.8 to 13.8) (United Nations 1997).
Declining fertility is not restricted to the industrialized countries. Although fertility rates remain high in many developing nations, typically in excess of three children per woman, rates have dropped sharply since the early 1960s as a result of the wide availability of birth control, and improved educational and economic opportunities for women. Worldwide, between 1963 and 1993 there was a decline of 1.8 in the average number of children born to a woman of childbearing age (United Nations 1994). These declines, however, vary among the different regions of the world: sub-Saharan Africa, an average decline of 0.4 children (from 6.7 to 6.3); the Middle East and North Africa, 2.4 children (from 6.9 to 4.5); South Asia, 1.9 children (from 6.0 to 4.1); East Asia and the Pacific, 3.4 children (from 5.7 to 2.3); Latin America and the Caribbean, 2.8 children (from 5.9 to 3.1) (United Nations 1994). Countries that have cut their birth rate by 50 per cent or more since the early 1960s include Thailand (from 6.4 in 1963 to 2.1 in 1993), Columbia (from 6.7 to 2.7), Kuwait (from 7.3 to 3.1), Brazil (from 6.1 to 2.9), Mexico (from 6.7 to 3.2), Peru (from 6.8 to 3.4), and Venezuela (from 6.6 to 3.3) (United Nations 1994). China, in large part as a result of the government’s one child limit, has seen a dramatic decline of an average of 3.6 births per woman between 1963 and 1993 (United Nations 1999). Even traditional Islamic countries have seen large declines, for example a decline in average births of 4.2 in Kuwait, 3.6 in Algeria, 3.2 in Egypt, and 2.5 in Jordan (United Nations 1999). For comparison, the average across all industrialized countries fell by 1.1 from 2.8 to 1.7 (United Nations 1994).
As noted above, teenage pregnancy is quite high in the United States at about 53 per 1000 women aged 15 to 19. Japan has the lowest rate among industrialized nations at about 4 per 1000, and rates are 10 or less per 1000 teenagers in Switzerland, The Netherlands, France, Italy, Belgium, and Denmark. But teenage pregnancy rates are also high in a number of East European countries: 59 per 1000 women aged 15 to 19 years in Bulgaria, between 40 and 50 per 1000 in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, the Ukraine, Macedonia, Romania, and Hungary, between 30 and 39 per 1000 in Moldova, Russia, Latvia, Estonia, Bosnia, Lithuania, Croatia, and Slovenia, and 28 per 1000 in Belarus and Poland (United Nations 1994). The rate is 33 per 1000 in the United Kingdom, 35 per 1000 in New Zealand, 27 per 1000 in Canada, and 21 per 1000 in Australia (United Nations 1994).
Elsewhere in the world, the rates of teenage births are, in many instances, much higher than in most industrialized countries. For example, the average rate of births per 1000 females age aged 15 to 19 is 143 across sub-Saharan Africa, with rates in excess of 200 in Sierra Leone, Congo, Liberia, Niger, Somalia, Angola, and Guinea (United Nations 1997). The average in the Middle East and North Africa is 56, with the highest rates found in Yemen (101), Libya (102), Saudi Arabia (114), and Oman (122); average rates of 56 are also found in Asia and the Pacific (highest in Afghanistan at 152, India at 109, and Bangladesh at 115), and the average in the Americas is 68 (highest in Nicaragua at 133) (United Nations 1997). China, again as a consequence of strict government birth policies, has among the lowest teenage birth rates in the world at an average of 5 per 1000 females aged 15 to 19; similarly low rates are also found in Korea with an average of 4, and Singapore with an average of 8 (United Nations 1997).
Decline in the size of households
As Garrett (1997) points out, the trend towards lower birth rates, especially in industrialized nations, is not because procreation has become less desirable, but rather that there has been a significant shift in the desired number of children. Indeed, the average family size has fallen dramatically across most industrialized countries due, in many cases, to the rising cost of children as they move from being an ‘economic asset’, common through the nineteenth century and in many underdeveloped countries today (where child labour is common), to the ’emotional asset’ of the postindustrial world.
The United States
Over 200 years ago, about two-thirds of all American households had five or more people. This proportion had dropped to 45 per cent by 1900, and to 14 per cent by 1997 (US Bureau of the Census 1998a). One reason for this decline in household size is that Americans have moved towards having fewer children. The percentage of women nationwide with one child has nearly doubled in the past 20 years to 19 per cent, and the rate is even higher for ‘non-white’ women at 22 per cent (O’Hanlon 1999). There are several reasons for this trend, including delayed marriage and first pregnancy, the high ‘opportunity cost’ of having a child (lost wages for women who stop or reduce work), changing lifestyles with a greater emphasis on adult fulfilment, and the high cost of child rearing. It is estimated, for example, that an average United States family with an annual income of $60 000 will spend $228 000 to raise a child, excluding the cost of college (O’Hanlon 1999).
There is also a growing percentage of United States families with no minor children of their own in their household. Between 1960 and 1997, the percentage of all families with no minor children rose from 43 to 51 per cent of all families, and only 34 per cent of all households now contain ‘own’ children (birth, adopted, or stepchildren) of the household head (US Department of Health and Human Services 1999). This trend is accompanied by an increase in the number of married couples under the age of 35 without own children under 18 from 23 per cent in 1970 to 29 per cent in 1997 (US Bureau of the Census 1998b). Families without own children under 18 at home are not necessarily ‘childless’, however. Some contain other related children (e.g. nieces/nephews, grandchildren, or foster children), while others contain adult children living at home or living away from home as part of their continuing education.
At the same time, the proportion of people living alone has risen dramatically from about 17 per cent of all households in 1970 to about 25 per cent in 1997 (US Bureau of the Census 1998a). In addition to the previously noted lengthening of young adulthood, these changes have been attributed to the rapidly increasing size of the elderly population driven by increasing longevity. For example, in the United States, children as a percentage of the total population have declined from a high of 36 per cent in 1960 to about 25 per cent; in contrast, the proportion of the population aged 65 and older has increased from 8 per cent in 1950 to 13 per cent in 1997, and is expected to grow to 16 per cent—nearly one out of six—by 2020 (US Department of Health and Human Services 1999).
As in the United States, other industrialized countries have also seen a decline in household sizes and a concomitant growth in single-person households. One cause, noted above, is delayed childbearing. Other causes include rising divorce rates (see below), increased time spent on education by young adults, and increased life expectancies, which have increased the number of elderly living alone, especially women. For example, single-person households now account for 28 per cent of all European Union households, up from 22 per cent in 1981 (Eurostat 1998). The averages are lower in the southern countries of Spain, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy, and higher in the northern countries of Denmark, Germany, Finland, and Sweden where they now account for more than one-third of the total household populations.
Although couples with children remain the most common family type, this pattern is being eroded throughout the European Union by the increasing number of single-parent families and childless couples, especially in the Scandinavian countries. In Denmark, for example, couples with children now account for 42 per cent of all households compared with more than 60 per cent in Spain, Ireland, and Portugal (Eurostat 1998). Single-parent families account for about 6 per cent of European Union households, with the highest rates in Ireland at 9 per cent; the majority of single parents are women, accounting for about 90 per cent of the total.
Similar changes are seen in Canada. In 1986, 52 per cent of families consisted of married couples with never-married children living at home, but in 1991, only 5 years later, this percentage had dropped to 48 per cent (Vanier Institute of the Family 1994). The proportion of families without children also increased during this same time period from 32 to 35 per cent, and single-parent families now account for 13 per cent of all Canadian families (Vanier Institute of the Family 1994).
Again, as in the United States, life expectancies have increased and this has given rise to more elderly persons in many European countries. In 1960, the elderly population (age 60 and older) accounted for an average of 17 per cent of the population across all European Union countries. By 1997, this proportion had risen to an average of 21 per cent, ranging from a low of about 15 per cent in Ireland to a high of about 23 per cent in Italy (Eurostat 1998). In fact, by the middle of the twenty-first century, current projections estimate that the proportion of elderly in Italy and Spain will reach about 37 per cent, fuelled by the previously discussed very low fertility rates in these countries.
Similar patterns are seen elsewhere in the world. For example, between 1960 and 1997 the proportion of the population over the age of 65 has increased from 8.5 to 12.1 per cent in Australia, from 10.2 to 13.5 per cent in the Czech Republic, from 5.7 to 15.7 per cent in Japan, and from 8.7 to 11.6 per cent in New Zealand (OECD 1999). In Canada, the proportion of the population aged 65 and over grew by about 80 per cent during the 1970s and 1980s (Vanier Institute of the Family 1994).
As noted by Goode, ‘… in our time people have been reducing their personal investment in the collectivity of the family … a different structure of opportunities exists today, in which one’s best interest is increasingly not to be found in the … family … better opportunities—for pleasure, self enhancement, advancement, even material goods—might be found elsewhere’ (Goode 1993, p. 9). As a consequence, the last half of the twentieth century has seen a substantial transformation affecting the institution of marriage, and these changes are likely to continue into the new millennium.
The United States
Most Americans continue to prize marriage as a source of sexual faithfulness, emotional support, mutual trust, and lasting commitment, and most will marry at least once in their lifetime. Yet, overall fewer Americans today are choosing to marry than in the past. For example, the proportion of United States adults age 18 and older who are married dropped from 72 per cent in 1970 to 60 per cent in 1996 (US Bureau of the Census 1998b). These declines have been most dramatic for African-Americans; over this period, the proportion of married adults decreased from 73 to 63 per cent for white Americans, from 72 to 58 per cent for Hispanics, and from 64 to only 42 per cent for African-Americans (US Bureau of the Census 1998b). In contrast, the proportion of never-married adults has doubled in the United States since 1970, and now accounts for 23 per cent of all adults (US Bureau of the Census 1998b). The sharpest increases have been seen for adults in their late twenties and early thirties, with the proportion of 25- to 29-year-olds who had never married increasing by a factor of over 3 for women (from 11 to 38 per cent between 1970 and 1996), and more than doubling for men (from 19 to 52 per cent) (US Bureau of the Census 1998b).
In large part, these changes in marriage rates are due to decisions by young adults to delay marriage to much later in life. The median age of first marriage in the United States is now 25 for a woman and 27 for a man, compared with 20 and 23 respectively in 1960 (Popenoe and Whitehead 1999). In fact, the annual number of marriages per 1000 unmarried women declined by 43 per cent in the United States between 1960 and 1996 (Popenoe and Whitehead 1999). One consequence of this change is that marriage is no longer associated with first sexual intercourse—in the United States today just over half of young women have experienced intercourse by the age of 17, and teenage girls are sexually active for 7 or 8 years on average before marriage (Moore et al. 1998).
In addition, more adults in the United States are deciding to remain single for their entire lives. In 1960, 94 per cent of women had been married at least once by age 45, a percentage that had remained relatively stable since the nineteenth century. If current trends continue, fewer than 85 per cent of current young adults will marry (Popenoe and Whitehead 1999). In addition, the percentage of persons age 15 and older who were married dropped from 69 per cent for males and 66 per cent for females in 1960, to 58 per cent and 55 per cent respectively in 1998 (US Bureau of the Census 1998b). For African-American females the drop has been particularly precipitous, going from 60 to 39 per cent in the same time period.
As a consequence, marriage has increasingly become a means of satisfying adult sexual and emotional needs rather than its more traditional use as a way of increasing economic capacity and nurturing young children. This breaking of the tie between marriage and parenthood has also led to a growing recognition of same-sex partnerships, and parenthood is no longer viewed as an integral part of marriage. Parenting is increasingly being claimed as a right of same-sex couples through adoption and medically assisted fertility.
In Europe during the 1960s, nearly 90 per cent of adults of marriageable age were married (Golini and Silvestrini 1997). Like the United States, however, Europe saw a decline in marriage in the 1960s which began in Sweden and spread from north to south during the following decade, accompanied by an increasing trend towards cohabitation (see below). But the decline in Europe has been more severe, and average European Union marriage rates are now well below those of the United States. Overall, the marriage rate in European Union countries declined from about eight per year for every 1000 persons in 1970 to about five per year in 1997, compared with an average of 8.9 in the United States (Eurostat 1998). Sweden continues to have the lowest marriage rate at 3.8 per 1000 persons, but the greatest declines since 1970 were observed in France (down 72 per cent to 4.9), Finland (down 72 per cent to 4.6), Ireland (down 66 per cent to 4.3), and The Netherlands (down 64 per cent to 5.5) (Eurostat 1998). Canada, by comparison, was slightly above the European Union average in 1997 at 5.4 per 1000 persons, and Japan at 6.4 was much higher than the average for all European Union countries and on a par with Denmark (6.5) and Portugal (6.4) (Eurostat 1998).
Austria provides an interesting example of the kind of dramatic changes that have swept Western Europe. It is a predominantly Catholic country, and more than 90 per cent of women born between 1935 and 1945 married, and the two-child family was widely considered to be the ideal. Since the 1970s, however, trends have created dramatic changes in family structures: there has been a sharp drop in the birth rate from 2.82 per 1000 in the early 1960s to below replacement levels (1.37) in 1998, family sizes have declined (about one-third of all marriages are now childless), and there is a greater prevalence of never-married persons, divorced persons, single-parent families, and cohabiting couples (Schwenger 1999).
Declines in marriage rates have also been seen in Central and East European countries. Between 1990 and 1997, marriage rates (per 1000 population) fell 38 per cent in Bulgaria (from 6.7 to 4.1), 33 per cent in the Czech Republic (8.4 to 5.6), 22 per cent in Romania (8.3 to 6.5), nearly 30 per cent in Russia (8.9 to 6.3), and nearly 15 per cent in Yugoslavia (6.2 to 5.3) (United Nations 1997). Similar declines have been seen in other industrialized countries during the same period—a drop of 16 per cent in Australia (6.9 to 5.8), 20 per cent in Israel (7.0 to 5.6), and 24 per cent in New Zealand (7.0 to 5.3). In contrast, marriage rates in Japan have actually increased from 5.8 in 1990 to 6.3 in 1998 (United Nations 1997).
As in the United States, a major cause of these dropping marriage rates is the decision by young adults increasingly to delay their first marriage. As of 1996, two-thirds of European 20- to 24-year-olds, and one-third of 25- to 29-year-olds, have not left the parental home; rates are higher in the southern European countries, approaching 50 per cent of 25- to 29-year-olds in Spain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal, and are much lower in the northern countries at 17 per cent in the United Kingdom, 14 per cent in The Netherlands, and 8 per cent in Finland (Eurostat 1998). As a consequence, the average age of marriage in the European Union has dropped significantly from an average of 26 and 23 for men and women respectively in 1980, to 29 and 26 in 1995 (Eurostat 1998). Similarly, the age of marriage in Canada has also increased between 1970 and 1990 from 23 and 25 for women and men respectively, to 26 and 28 respectively (Vanier Institute of the Family 1994).
As in the United States, the European Union has seen an increasing trend towards same-sex partnerships, although there are substantial variations across Western European countries with the trends most stark in Denmark and The Netherlands where same-sex unions have become semi-institutionalized (Dumon 1997).
Increase in cohabitation
As Dumon (1997) points out, since the revolutionary period of the 1960s marriage has lost its role as a line of transition from parental home to the ‘family of procreation’. Today, young adults are increasingly more likely to stay single (either living in their parental home or independently), or to enter into a cohabiting relationship (especially among more educated individuals with a higher socio-economic status). For example, cohabitation has become so prevalent in Scandinavian countries that the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children has become meaningless, and with rates of non-marital childbearing in the range of 30 per cent in France and the United Kingdom, similar patterns may arise there as well (Dumon 1997).
The United States
In addition to the delay in first marriages, the decline in marriage in the United States is, at least in part, due to the growth in unmarried cohabitation which is increasingly replacing marriage as a significant early life experience for young adults. It is now estimated that about half of unmarried women aged 25 to 39 have lived at some time with an unmarried partner, and about half of the unmarried partners aged 25 to 34 living together have children in the household (Bumpass and Sweet 1989; Bumpass and Lu 1998; Manning and Lichter 1996). According to Waite (1999), many cohabiting adults behave more like room-mates, sharing a residence and expenses but maintaining separate social and economic pursuits. In fact, research has shown that individuals who cohabit prior to marriage have higher levels of divorce after marriage—women who cohabit with their spouses prior to marriage have divorce rates 80 per cent higher than women who do not (Bennett 1987).
As in the United States, cohabitation has increased throughout the European Union and now accounts for 8 per cent of all couples. As noted above, in Scandinavian countries cohabitation has become essentially a ‘marriage substitute’. In most other European countries, where it exists, it is largely a temporary arrangement preceding marriage, especially for young adults (15 to 35 years) and divorced persons.
The highest rates of cohabitation are found in northern Europe, where rates range from highs of 25 per cent in Denmark, 14 per cent in France, 13 per cent in The Netherlands, and 11 per cent in the United Kingdom, to lows in the southern European countries of 2 per cent in Italy and Greece, and 3 per cent in Spain, Ireland, and Portugal. However, in all countries rates are highest for individuals under age 30. In Denmark, for example, 70 per cent of young couples are unmarried (Eurostat 1998). In Sweden cohabitation accounts for 75 per cent of all unions among people aged 20 to 24 years and 46 per cent of those aged 25 to 29 years, but drops to about 10 per cent among 45- to 49-year-olds (Golini and Silvestrini 1997).
In Canada, cohabitation has accounted for the greatest change in family structures: in the 5-year period from 1986 to 1991 the proportion increased from 7 to 10 per cent of all Canadian families (Vanier Institute of the Family 1994).
Increase in the divorce rate
Not only have marriages been delayed in the United States and most other industrialized countries, but also the rate of marriage dissolution has increased through divorce, a marked change from death as the previously more typical cause of the end of a marriage partnership. In part, this change has come about as a result of government policy changes that have increasingly allowed ‘no fault’ divorce.
One of the important consequences of rising marriage dissolution is the creation of newly organized families for which terms such as ‘merged’, ‘blended’, ‘reconstituted’, or ‘serial’ have been created, with adults and children from multiple marriages joining together to create new family units. Take, for example, the following pattern described by Golini and Silvestrini (1997): an individual is born into a family composed of a mother and a father (a ‘traditional’ nuclear family); following a divorce, the child lives with his or her mother alone (single-parent family) until she remarries to join a stepfamily, possibly consisting of stepbrothers and stepsisters (who may themselves be from prior marriages); when independent, he or she may live alone (a single-person household), then marry and have children (create own family), divorce and remarry (create own stepfamily), and end life as a widow or widower living alone (a single-person household). The variety of family formations—and the life experiences that are becoming more common—have created a changing system of family relationships that is likely to have profound effects as we move into the twenty-first century.
The United States
In 1920, there were 1.6 divorces per 1000 population in the United States, and this rose moderately to about 2.5 in the late 1960s. The rate of divorce then began to climb dramatically, along with changing divorce laws, peaking at 5.3 in the early 1980s, and since declining to 4.3 in 1997, but still at historically high levels (US Bureau of the Census 1998b). According to Popenoe and Whitehead (1999), these recent trends in the United States may be only temporary, owing to the aging of the American population, a decrease in the number of people of marriageable age, and some increase in marital stability.
As Garrett (1997) points out, although divorce rates have risen in the United States (and in many other industrialized countries), the rate of remarriage has gone up at almost the same rate, indicating a desire to get out of existing marriages but not to give up on the institution altogether. In particular, individuals who marry young and then divorce are more likely to remarry, thereby creating the newly emerging family forms noted above. Yet, there has still been an increase in the percentage of all United States adults who are currently divorced, from about 2 per cent and 3 per cent for males and females respectively in 1960, to about 8 per cent and 10 per cent respectively in 1998 (US Bureau of the Census 1998b). Overall, about 50 per cent of United States marriages are estimated to end in divorce (Popenoe and Whitehead 1999).
One of the important consequences of divorce in the United States (and elsewhere) is the increased poverty rate among women—American men who divorce experience an average 42 per cent increase in their standard of living, while separated women experience a 73 per cent decline after divorce (Garrett 1997). As a consequence, many previously married women are forced into the welfare system following divorce. In fact, a study by Antolin et al. (1999) in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany shows that divorce and separation are the main reasons for entry into poverty, and the length of stay in poverty, especially for female-headed households.
This fall into poverty following divorce has the greatest negative impact on the well being of any children created during the adult union. To begin with, conflict between mothers and fathers can affect the social and emotional well being of children, and this conflict often continues beyond the divorce separation (Peterson and Zill 1986). Children also experience strong reactions to the loss of contact with one parent through divorce (Wallerstein and Kelly 1980), and are affected by the change in parenting practices that also accompanies the family dissolution (Zill et al. 1993). Compared with children in two-parent families, children whose parents have divorced are more likely to drop out of school, to engage in premarital sex, and to become pregnant outside of marriage (Furstenberg and Teitler 1994). Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that remarriage does not necessarily lead to improved conditions for children (Zill and Rogers 1988; Whitehead 1993).
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF 1997), ‘… 30–50 per cent of first marriages in developed countries, and 25 per cent of first marriages in developing countries are dissolved by the time women are 40–49 years old, many as a result of divorce or separation’. In general, divorce (and cohabitation) are more associated withthe middle- and upper-income classes than with the poor. But, as in the United States, in many countries the break-up of partnering relationships worsens the economic conditions of women and children as male financial support ends or dwindles away over time.
In Western Europe, the rate of divorce doubled from 1970 to 1997, but at an average of 1.8 divorces per 1000 population it is still well below the rates seen in the United States (Eurostat 1998). Average divorce rates are highest in the United Kingdom at 2.9 per 1000, Belgium at 2.6 (due to recently liberalized divorce laws), Finland (2.6), and Sweden (2.4). At present, more than half of all marriages in Belgium, and over 40 per cent of marriages in the United Kingdom and the three Scandinavian countries, end in divorce (Eurostat 1998). Alternatively, divorce rates are lowest in the southern European countries, especially Italy with the lowest rate in Western Europe at 0.6 per 1000 population, even though divorce was legalized in 1970 (Eurostat 1998). Divorce rates in Canada (2.6 per 1000), Japan (1.7), and the Czech Republic are comparable to those currently observed in Western Europe (Eurostat 1998). Finally, this trend is not confined to Western countries. Even China, with its long tradition of a strong family unit, has seen a dramatic increase in the divorce rate, coinciding with a rapidly growing economy and greater opportunities for women.
It should be noted, however, that making cross-national comparisons of divorce rates is very difficult. As Goode (1993) points out, there are the obvious data problems including a failure to collect data on divorces, and differences in the extent to which formal marriages are entered into. There are also strict religious rules that in many countries govern the ability to gain a divorce. For example, although many Catholic countries in Europe and Latin America have reduced prohibitions, prior laws did not necessarily prevent couples from seeking informal ways to dissolve their union. Finally, low rates of divorce do not necessarily indicate a more stable institution of marriage as ‘… we have no reason to believe that when rates are high, more people are unhappy with their family life. Nor do we believe that people in low-rate systems do not have divorce because they are content in marriage’ (Goode 1993, p. 39).
Rise in non-marital childbearing
As noted above, marriage in many industrialized countries has declined as an early life experience for many young adults. As a consequence, marriage has lost its role as the primary entry point for sexual activity, and has increasingly been replaced by cohabitation between men and women as a vehicle for adult fulfilment. A recent Gallup International poll conducted in 16 countries (Saad 1997) explored opinions regarding whether non-marital childbearing is considered morally wrong. Overall, adults in Western Europe (particularly Germany, the United Kingdom, and Spain) are most liberal, whereas the most conservative opinions are found in Asia (Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, and India), with the United States, France, and Canada in the middle. For example, the majority of adults in India (84 per cent), Singapore (69 per cent), and Taiwan (55 per cent) believe out-of-wedlock births are wrong. This contrasts with European adults: 20 to 25 per cent held a similar opinion in the United Kingdom and Spain, 16 per cent in Hungary and Lithuania, and less than 10 per cent in Germany, France, and Iceland. The United States is the most conflicted on this subject, with slightly less than half of all adults saying that births out of wedlock are morally wrong.
The United States
In 1940, only 3.5 per cent of all births in the United States were to unmarried women, and this statistic increased slightly to 5.3 per cent in 1960. Since then, the United States has seen a nearly sevenfold increase in the incidence of out-of-wedlock births to about 33 per cent in 1997 (US Department of Health and Human Services 1999). Although three-quarters of births to teenagers (aged 15 to 19) were to unmarried women, most of the non-marital births in the United States (about two-thirds) are to women over the age of 20 (US Department of Health and Human Services 1999).
Overall, nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are estimated to be unintended (National Center for Health Statistics 1999a,b). Although this represents a decline of 12 per cent between 1988 and 1995, it is still much higher than in other developed countries. Canada’s rate, for example, is 39 per cent, while it is only 6 per cent in The Netherlands (National Center for Health Statistics 1999a,b). Recent reports examining non-marital childbearing in the United States indicate that nearly 40 per cent of such pregnancies occur to cohabiting adults (Bumpass and Lu 1998). The evidence also suggests that some of the increase in non-marital births resulted from the higher probability that pregnancies would come to term rather than ending in abortion, i.e. less availability or lower social acceptance of abortion and higher social acceptance of illegitimacy (Moore et al. 1995a,b).
There are also important differences in non-marital childbearing by race and ethnicity in the United States, with the percentage of out-of-wedlock births at 16.3 per cent for Asian women, 25.3 per cent for white women, 40.8 per cent for Hispanics, 57.2 per cent for Native Americans, and a staggering 69.9 per cent for African-American women (US Department of Health and Human Services 1999). In fact, at least 80 per cent of all African-American children in the United States can expect to spend a significant part of their childhood apart from their fathers. In 1960, 78 per cent of African-American babies were born to married mothers, dropping to 58 per cent by 1970, and to 35 per cent by 1997; the rate for white women, by comparison, decreased from 90 per cent in 1960 to about 75 per cent in 1997 (Morehouse Research Institute 1999).
Children born to unmarried women are much more likely to grow up poor, to spend large portions of their lives without two parents, and to become single parents themselves (McLanahan and Sandefur 1994; Ventura 1995). Many have suggested that the rise in non-marital childbearing has led to a ‘fatherlessness crisis’ in America (Pearlstein 1997), with nearly 40 per cent of all American children residing in homes without their biological father (Blankenhorn 1995). Moreover, about 40 per cent of these fatherless children have not seen their father for at least a year, and only one in six see their father an average of once or more per week (Furstenberg and Nord 1985).
The consequences of living in the United States without the presence of a father are stark. American babies born out of wedlock are four to five times more likely to have received no prenatal care, almost half of unwed mothers go on public assistance within 1 year of the baby’s birth, 70 per cent of incarcerated juveniles grew up in single- or no-parent families, three out of four teenage suicides occur in single-parent homes, and the infant mortality rate is higher for babies born out of wedlock (Horn 1995).
In line with increasing numbers of cohabiting adults in many European countries, there has been an associated increase in the proportion of out-of-wedlock births from an average of 10 per cent of all live births in 1980 to 22 per cent in 1998 (Eurostat 1999). However, the incidence of non-marital childbearing is quite variable among the different Western European countries, with the highest rates of illegitimacy, in excess of those in the United States, found in Scandinavian countries—54 per cent in Sweden, 46 per cent in Denmark, and 36.5 per cent in Finland—but rates are also high and comparable to the American experience in France (39 per cent) and the United Kingdom (36.7 per cent) (Eurostat 1998). Alternatively, the lowest rates of out-of-wedlock births are found in the southern European countries of Greece (3.3 per cent) and Italy (8.3 per cent) (Eurostat 1998).
Although the incidence of out-of-wedlock births varies among the European Union countries, the trend has moved in the same direction across Western Europe to the point that the population replacement level in many countries now depends on non-marital births (Dumon 1997). For example, the low fertility rate in Italy has been blamed on the low incidence of cohabitation and illegitimate births. Ireland provides another interesting example, as a strongly Catholic country in which abortion and divorce remain illegal. Not unexpectedly, Ireland has a relatively low level of unmarried couples but a surprisingly high proportion of births outside of wedlock (23 per cent) (Eurostat 1998). as a result of a high level of adult emigration to find employment and a relatively high fertility rate, Ireland now has 44 per cent of its population under the age of 25 (Quick 1995).
Elsewhere in the world, the rate of non-marital births in Canada (28 per cent) is comparable to that of many other industrial countries, but out-of-wedlock births are essentially non-existent in Japan, accounting for only about 1 per cent of all live births.
Growth in female-headed households
The combined trends of increased non-marital childbearing, divorce, and the dissolution of cohabiting relationships between parents (particularly common in Europe) have created a current situation in most developed countries in which ever smaller percentages of children will reach the age of 18 with both parents remaining in the household. According to Morris (1993), the bonds between unmarried women and their sexual partners are generally weak, and marriages resulting from unplanned pregnancies tend to be very unstable. Moreover, when teenagers have babies out of wedlock they do not receive the support or services they need during pregnancy, therefore negatively affecting their health and that of their baby. Father absence is also associated with higher rates of poor father–child relationships, increased teenage suicide, substance abuse, and early pregnancy.
The United States
In the past, single mothers were likely to be widowed or divorced, and the situation for those who bore children out of wedlock was often temporary. Today, single mothers are far more likely to have never married and are much more likely to remain single, making single motherhood a more permanent life situation.
In 1960 only about 9 per cent of all American children lived in single-parent families, a statistic that remained relatively stable for most of the twentieth century; by 1998, this had more than tripled to 28 per cent (US Bureau of the Census 1998b). Although the number of father-only families has grown, close to 90 per cent of these single-parent families are headed by women. At the start of the twenty-first century, nearly one out of four American children are living with their mother only (US Department of Health and Human Services 1999).
However, there are significant differences in the incidence of female-headed households in the United States by race and ethnicity. From 1970 to 1997 the percentage of white children living with both parents dropped from 90 to 75 per cent, for Hispanic children the decline was from 78 to 64 per cent, but for African-American children the percentage declined from 58 to 35 per cent (US Department of Health and Human Services 1999). Today, what some have called a crisis in American black families has led to a situation in which almost two-thirds of all African-American children are living in female-headed households.
We cannot say that a child in a two-parent family is necessarily doing better than a child in a single-parent family. In fact, the majority of United States children from single-parent families do well. But we do have considerable evidence that single-parent families are far more likely than two-parent families to be poor. United States children under the age of 18 living with only their mother are four times more likely to have a total family income of under $10 000 than children living with both parents, and about half of all children in female-headed households live below the United States defined poverty line (US Bureau of the Census 1998a). There is also accumulating evidence to indicate that children from single-parent families are less likely to experience healthy development than children from intact families—they are somewhat more likely to use alcohol and drugs, to become teenage parents themselves, to do poorly in school and/or fail to complete their education, and to have difficulty finding employment (McLanahan and Sandefur 1994; US Department of Health and Human Services 1999).
Divorce and non-marital childbearing can also affect a woman’s earning capacity, and this is often exacerbated by the failure of many non-custodial parents to pay adequate child support. Fathers who live apart from their children also spend less time with their children (Wallerstein and Kelly 1980), and the added stress on mothers can negatively affect their parenting ability (McLeod and Shanahan 1993; McLoyd and Wilson 1993). Having another cohabiting adult enter the household can add further stress to children’s lives. The lower incomes associated with single-parent families also keep them in poorer communities, with the concomitant risks of crime and violence, drug abuse, inadequate housing, and a deficiency of high-quality schools and other public services (Sandefur and Mosley 1997). They also experience high levels of mobility, which reduces community attachments and has been found to have a negative effect on a child’s school performance (McLanahan and Sandefur 1994).
In general, the European Union countries have also seen a rise in single-parent families, due in part to increased rates of divorce and non-marital births, and lower rates of remarriage. Although the ‘nuclear family’ still predominates in the European Union, there is an increasing proportion of single-parent families and childless couples. In 1994, 9 per cent of children under the age of 16 were living in single-parent households, but rates were considerably higher in the United Kingdom (16 per cent), Sweden and Denmark (each at 14 per cent), and Ireland (12 per cent) (Eurostat 1998). This trend has been far less pronounced in the southern European countries of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, where marriage remains strongly institutionalized. Rates comparable to northern Europe are also found in Canada, where 14 per cent of children live with a single parent, most often the mother (Vanier Institute of the Family 1994).
Recent research examining poverty in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany clearly shows that single-parent, especially female-headed, households are consistently over-represented in poverty (Antolin et al. 1999). Whether the cause be non-marital childbearing, the dissolution of a cohabiting relationship in which children were present, or divorce, it is generally the case that women fare very poorly after a break-up and this has severe consequences for their health and well being and that of their children.
In other parts of the world, there have also been dramatic increases in the proportion of female-headed households. In the developing world in particular, war, disease, and political unrest have driven families apart, and a lack of economic opportunities have led many men to migrate away from their homes and in many instances to abandon their families. These conditions are especially severe in Latin America and Africa where women are increasingly forced to face higher economic burdens with limited economic opportunities.
More women in the labour force
Research by Micklewright and Stewart (1999) demonstrates that adult family member connectedness to the labour market determines in large part the overall well being of children. In addition, a lack of adult employment also causes tensions within the family, and may limit a child’s aspirations and contacts.
The United States
Over the last 30 years, the proportion of women in the labour force has increased substantially, paralleling the increase in single-parent households. In particular, the employment rates for mothers with children under the age of 18 years rose from 53 per cent in 1980 to 66 per cent in 1996 (US Department of Health and Human Services 1999). As a result, there has been a substantial increase in the percentage of children who do not have a full-time parent at home; in 1997, 68 per cent of children had both parents, or their only resident parent, in the labour force, up from 59 per cent in 1985 (US Department of Health and Human Services 1999). The sharpest rise for women in the labour force has been for single-mother families with children under the age of 6 years, increasing from 49 per cent in 1980 to 65 per cent in 1997 (US Department of Health and Human Services 1999).
Americans have traditionally believed that at least one parent (usually the father) should work in a two-parent family because the added benefits almost always outweigh the benefits of having two parents at home. For low-income families in particular, a mother’s income has provided an opportunity to raise a family’s earnings out of poverty (Danziger and Gottschalk 1990; Bane and Ellwood 1994; McLanahan and Sandefur 1994). But American society has become increasingly ambivalent about whether the second parent—or the only resident parent—should work. However, as noted above, the reality is that most United States mothers are employed outside the home.
The research literature is inconclusive about the effect of parental employment on children’s well being (Smith et al. 1997). When parents work their income almost always increases (the ‘income effect’), but they also have less time to devote to their families, especially their children (the ‘time effect’ of work). In fact, Americans now surpass every other industrialized nation in terms of time spent on the job, and more and more children are expressing concerns about the quality of time that parents are able to devote to them (Grimsley and Salmon 1999).
Families in which mothers work have higher incomes, on average, than similar families in which mothers do not work outside the home. Higher incomes are important because poor children consistently fare worse on almost every outcome that social scientists have studied (Haveman et al. 1991; Brooks-Gunn and Duncan 1998). Gaining employment has also been found to be the main factor reducing the time spent in poverty in the United States and other industrialized countries, and households with multiple wage earners are better protected from poverty as they are better able to adjust their labour supply in response to job loss or reduction by one member (Antolin et al. 1999). Some have argued that the economic benefits of such work are often exaggerated, particularly when lost ‘home production’ is taken into account (P. Gottschalk and S.E. Mayer, unpublished work, University of Chicago, 1994). Furthermore, the added income may not benefit children as much as adults (Lazear and Michael 1988). However, others argue that employment makes parents better role models for their children.
The time effect of parental employment is difficult to measure as it depends on the quality of care provided by parents compared with that provided by others when parents are working. If the care is better, or if it provides new and different learning experiences, the child may benefit. This is why, in part, there has been greatly expanded demand for safe, affordable, and accessible child care arrangements in the United States. One in five part-time workers in the United States would, in fact, work more if reasonable child care were available to them, and one-third of poor women not working identified child care as a barrier to their workforce participation (Child Welfare League of America 1995).
However, increased workforce participation by parents has forced many children to negotiate the transition from home to school at a younger age, especially poor children. For most children, their initial exposure to schools used to occur when they entered kindergarten at age 5, or first grade a year later. Today the situation is quite different. In 1995, 60 per cent of children in the United States under the age of 6 years who were not in kindergarten received some form of care from adults other than their parents (Emig 1999). The incidence was nearly 90 per cent for women who worked full-time and 75 per cent for those employed part-time (Emig 1999).
There has been a similarly sharp worldwide increase in women’s formal and informal employment as women are increasingly assuming jobs traditionally held by men, but often at lower wages. In the West the cost of children has increased substantially, placing greater demands on families and expanding the need for two wage earners. In developing countries, families have had to assume a greater share of their children’s education in response to policy adjustments in poor debt-ridden countries. Working adults are also increasingly having to support elderly parents and extended family members as lifespans have increased due to improved health and sanitary conditions. Traditional family support networks have also become less stable as family sizes decline. The pandemic of AIDS, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, has led to situations where there are fewer adults able to provide care for children and the elderly.
Similar to the United States, women in European Union countries have moved in large numbers into the labour force, in parallel with declines in fertility rates, increases in educational opportunities for women, and changes in attitudes about the need for two wage earners. As of 1996, almost two-thirds of women between the ages of 25 and 59 in the European Union worked at least part-time (Eurostat 1998). Even though slightly lower, rates for women with children are also high. For example, for women aged 20 to 45 with one child, the rates of employment are near or over 80 per cent in France, Austria, Portugal, and Finland, and over 70 per cent in Denmark and the United Kingdom (Eurostat 1998). As in the United States, these changes have created the ‘dual career family’, which imposes a strong need for women to reconcile their work and family lives, including available and affordable child care, and ‘family friendly’ work arrangements. In contrast, The Netherlands has maintained the strength of the ‘traditional family’ model, despite high labour force participation by women, because nearly two-thirds of employed women are in part-time jobs (Rothenbacher 1998b).
Similar patterns of increasing employment by women, especially mothers, are also found elsewhere in the world. Between 1980 and 1995, female labour force participation for women age 15 to 64 has increased in Australia (from 52 to 65 per cent), Iceland (from 56 to 82 per cent), Japan (from 55 to 62 per cent), and New Zealand (from 45 to 66 per cent) (United States Bureau of the Census 1998a). Current rates are also high in the Czech Republic (65 per cent), Poland (61 per cent), South Korea (53 per cent), and Mexico (40 per cent) (United States Bureau of the Census 1998a). Even China, the fastest growing economy in the world over the last 20 years, has seen a dramatic rise in women’s earnings from 20 per cent of average family incomes in 1950 to about 40 per cent today.
Changes in family functions
As noted at the start of this chapter, families at one time (and still in many parts of the world) performed a variety of functions that met most, if not all, of the needs of individual family members. Today, many of these same functions are met outside the family. For example, the workplace is now separate from one’s place of residence, schools provide for the education of children, and economic assistance comes from banks or government rather than from other family members. Some have seen this transfer of functions as a decline in the viability and importance of the family; for others, this is really just allowing family members to focus more on what they can do best, such as nurturing and socializing the young, and supporting the development of adults (Garrett 1997).
As Dumon (1997) suggests, one of the important changes brought about by the entrance of women into the labour force is the changing functional roles of men and women, and the need to balance the often competing demands of work and family. Although women still bear the primary burden of domestic responsibilities, fathers and husbands are increasingly assuming housework chores and responsibility for child-rearing. In line with these changes, the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo called for the promotion of gender equity, especially within the family where it can have an important effect on the well being of children.
As noted in a recent UNICEF publication, ‘Traditional households with the father as provider and the mother as nurturer and caregiver are increasingly giving way to less conventional relationships and roles within the family. However, many families are not coping well with these changes, and the conditions of women and children have worsened’ (UNICEF 1997). In many countries women have assumed a greater share of providing for the economic resources of the family without an associated decline in their domestic and child-bearing responsibilities. Evidence does indicate that when women are forced to balance these demands, child-caring tends to be the first obligation to be sacrificed.
Changing women’s roles have also marginalized men and some have responded with higher levels of domestic violence. For example, the United States has seen increases in the number of children receiving child protective services. Between 1990 and 1996 the national rate of children who were subjects of reports of abuse or neglect increased from 41 to 44 children per 1000 (US Department of Health and Human Services 1998). Moreover, these numbers do not reflect reports of abuse and neglect screened out prior to investigation, a number that appears to be increasing (Petit and Curtis 1997). In 1996, child protective services agencies determined that almost 1 million children were identified as victims of substantiated or indicated abuse or neglect, an increase of approximately 18 per cent since 1990 (US Department of Health and Human Services 1998).
Similarly, the number of United States children entering foster care, and the total foster-care caseload, has continued to increase (American Public Welfare Association 1996). In 1998, 4 per cent of all United States children under the age of 18 lived in households in which there was no biological parent present, and the rate for African-American children is more than twice as high (US Bureau of the Census 1998). Many of these children live with relatives, with about two-thirds being cared for by grandparents, usually a grandmother. Compared with children being raised by their parents, children in such ‘kinship care’ are more disadvantaged on several measures: they are more likely to be cared for by a single woman, to have a caretaker who is over 50 years old, and to have a caretaker who is a high-school dropout. They are also substantially more likely to be poor and to be in families receiving government assistance.
Homelessness has also become an increasingly common aspect of life in many industrialized countries. It is estimated, for example, that 3 million people in the 15 countries that comprise the European Union lack a permanent home, while about three-quarters of a million are homeless in the United States (UNICEF 1999). Because women with children comprise the greater proportion of the poor in many industrialized countries, children are often most adversely affected by homelessness. For example, it is estimated that almost 250 000 young people between 16 and 24 became homeless in a single year in the United Kingdom (UNICEF 1999).
Health and social policy affecting families
The social and demographic trends described up to this point have been affected in various ways by government policies and programmes—in some cases, by the absence of government action. Government intervention in the family has a long history in human evolution, dating back to the first formal code of laws established by Hammurabi in the eighteenth century BC in Mesopotamia, which included rules governing the structure and maintenance of families and the institution of marriage. Today, government policies related to child support, cash assistance, and other efforts to help families can be the difference between poverty and self-sufficiency for many families (McLanahan and Garfinkel 1995).
The United States
Family support programmes in the United States date back to the creation of the Children’s Bureau in 1912, but are most importantly tied to the post-Depression era with the passage of the landmark 1935 Social Security Act which, among other things, created the first national programme to provide Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Since then, a number of important legislative actions have been taken, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, including the creation of Medicare (health care for the elderly), Medicaid (health care for the poor), Head Start (a preschool child-development programme for poor children), Food Stamps (nutrition assistance for low income families), and the creation of federal support for the education of disadvantaged children. However, as many have noted, there is no coherent ‘family policy’ in the United States as there is great division over the degree to which government should ‘interfere’ in personal family lives and decisions. For example, the United States is one of the very few industrialized nations that does not guarantee basic maternity and child health care for everyone.
Surprisingly, no comprehensive estimates of United States federal expenditures on children had been made until a recent effort by R.L. Clark and C.E. Steuerle (unpublished work, Urban Institute, 1999) which analysed trends in 66 separate federal programmes over a period of nearly 40 years. Their results show that United States federal expenditures on children increased by 251 per cent over this period, from $48.6 billion to $171 billion in 1997. However, this rate of increase lagged slightly behind the growth in the overall federal budget (which increased by 261 per cent), and closely matched the growth in the overall United States economy—as a percentage of gross domestic product, federal expenditures on children increased from 2 per cent in the late 1950s to 2.2 per cent in 1997. On a per capita basis, federal expenditures on children rose from $725 per individual aged 0 to 18 years to about $2300 in 1997. At the same time, the poverty rate for children increased from 17.6 per cent to almost 20 per cent.
Clark and Steuerle also examined federal expenditures by type of programme: tax credits and exemptions (the Earned Income Tax Credit, the dependent exemption, and exemptions for child care), income security (including the main welfare programme, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Supplemental Security Income, and children’s survivor benefits), education, nutrition assistance (including the Food Stamp Program, and the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and child nutrition programmes), health (including Medicaid), housing assistance programmes, social services (including Head Start, foster care assistance, and child care subsidies), and training programmes (including job training and summer youth employment). Their findings indicate that tax mechanisms, as a way of assisting children, declined in importance over the period studied, as did the relative share of federal expenditures for children through income security and education programmes. Alternatively, greater importance has been placed on nutrition and health assistance, and social services, primarily Head Start (a preschool education programme for low-income children), foster care, and child care subsidies.
In effect, two trends have characterized the United States federal role in assisting children since 1960: (a) a shift from efforts to help all children (especially children of parents with enough income to owe income taxes) to assistance targeted at poor children (and their families); (b) a shift from programmes that leave decisions about spending on children in the hands of parents (e.g. tax credits and exemptions, and cash assistance) to programmes that deliver ‘in-kind’ benefits (e.g. food stamps to purchase food, housing assistance, subsidized housing, and Medicaid health insurance). Choosing among these different approaches was the focus of much of the United States political debate during the last half of the twentieth century and is unlikely to go away in the near future. As Clark and Steuerle point out, broader efforts to help children, and those programmes that place discretion in the hands of parents, are favoured by proponents for their efficiency, but opponents point to the opportunity to purchase ‘undesirable’ goods and services that may not benefit children. On the other hand, more targeted programmes can place more money in the hands of poor families per dollar spent, but can have negative effects, particularly disincentives to work or marry because benefits are lost when income rises. With this as a backdrop, the following discussion examines current United States policies as they affect families, using the same trends as discussed above.
It has been estimated that over three-quarters of all unmarried teenage mothers begin receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children within 5 years of the birth of their first child (Wertheimer and Moore 1998). As noted above, the United States has historically had one of the highest rates of teenage births among all industrialized countries, and the situation is especially serious for minority youth.
To deal with this problem, in 1996 the United States Congress, as part of the major overhaul of the American welfare programme, replaced the 60-year-old Aid to Families with Dependent Children programme with the new Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which contained a number of provisions aimed at breaking the link between non-marital births and welfare, and reducing teenage childbearing. The legislation included restrictions on benefits to unwed teenage parents who do not live at home and do not attend school, bonuses to states with the highest decrease in out-of-wedlock childbearing (to be achieved without offsetting increases in abortion), an abstinence education programme that will invest $50 million in federal funds annually for 5 years, a requirement that states develop plans to reduce non-marital pregnancies with special emphasis on teenage pregnancies, establishment of national goals that 25 per cent of all United States communities have teenage pregnancy programmes in place, and a requirement that the Attorney General study the linkage between statutory rape and teenage pregnancy, and educate state and local criminal law enforcement officials on its prevention and prosecution.
Many have called the Moynihan Report (Moynihan 1965) the most influential, and certainly most controversial, discussion of family breakdown in the United States. Its main conclusion was that the government’s economic and social welfare policies were helping to destabilize families, especially African-American families. On the one hand, it has been argued that the loss of good entry-level jobs, particularly in the inner cities, has made many African-American men less marriageable, thereby helping to undermine the institution of marriage (Wilson 1987). On the other hand, it has been argued that Aid to Families with Dependent Children (the main welfare programme in the United States until the early 1990s) acted as an incentive for young women both to become pregnant and to remain apart from their child’s father (Murray 1984; Gilder 1995).
The issue of social policy and the break-up of the American family surfaced in force in the early 1990s with a publication by Charles Murray (1993), which pointed to non-marital childbearing as the most devastating problem in America because, it was claimed, this was the root cause of most of the other social ills (e.g. crime, poverty, drug abuse, etc.). This argument coincided with Republican control of Congress and the rising power of political conservatives who subsequently pushed a social agenda based on ‘family values’ (Garrett 1997).
Although the research on the factors behind the rising incidence of non-marital childbearing is fairly sparse, changes in access to economic opportunity, the residential segregation of the poor in particular neighbourhoods, and shifts in values and norms are all implicated. One potential explanation that certainly drove the legislative intent of the 1996 welfare reform legislation that created the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was that the availability of public assistance discourages marriage and encourages non-marital childbearing. However, a recent review of the literature by Moffitt (1998) concludes that ‘… the welfare system has some effect on marriage and childbearing, but the size of the effect is highly uncertain and unresolved.’ Indeed Moffitt and others conclude that the size of the effect is probably small and that there is limited evidence that the long-term receipt of welfare in one generation increases non-marital childbearing in the next generation.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act contained numerous components aimed at decreasing non-marital childbearing and reducing the possible negative effect of welfare on family formation decisions. These include time-limited financial assistance (recipients can only receive benefits for a maximum of 5 years over their lifetime), allowing family caps (restricting welfare benefits for additional children), requiring that all able-bodied parents work or acquire training that will increase their employability, making it easier for states to serve married as well as unmarried parents, strengthening child support enforcement, and establishing $20 million bonuses for the five states showing the greatest decrease in births to unmarried women.
As noted above, the movement of large numbers of women with children—especially very young children—into the labour force has significantly increased the demand for affordable, high-quality, and accessible child care (e.g. during the hours and days during which parents work, and close to either their home or place of employment). This has occurred even though overall birth rates have declined. Unlike many other industrial countries, however, the United States has failed to legislate comprehensive child care programmes, leaving a patchwork of federal, state, and local government and private-sector programmes (Bloom and Steen 1996).
The first forms of federal child care assistance in the United States date back to the Great Depression with the use of federal funds to establish child care centres and nursery schools (Bloom and Steen 1996). This effort expanded during the Second World War to accommodate the movement of large numbers of women into defence-related industries, but this programme was terminated in 1946 with the end of the war. Further assistance was provided in 1954 when Congress allowed parents to take a tax exemption on their annual income tax filings for certain types of child care expenses. This was replaced in 1976 with the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit.
The first attempt to pass comprehensive legislation to assist working families with children (the Comprehensive Child Development Act in 1971) was subsequently vetoed by President Nixon. This action also stopped any further efforts until 1988, when growing concerns about the quality and availability of child care in the United States led to the introduction of more than 100 separate pieces of legislation dealing with child care (Bloom and Steen 1996). Although Presidential resistance again led to the defeat of attempts at passing comprehensive legislation, in 1988 Congress passed the Family Support Act, which included an entitlement for child care assistance for families on welfare and families moving off welfare, and required states to match federal expenditures for this purpose. In 1990, federal involvement in child care assistance grew further with passage of the Child Care and Development Block Grant and At-Risk Grants to States which has several key provisions: expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (i.e. tax credits to the working poor), the provision of funds to states to improve the availability of child care (largely used to subsidize the cost of child care for poor families), funding to help states improve their licensing systems for child care provider, and increased funding for child care assistance including low-income families who do not qualify for the United States welfare system to help them avoid falling back into poverty.
Most recently, the primary focus of federal policy has been single mothers receiving public assistance as there has been increasing social acceptance of parental labour force participation. In particular, the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which represents the culmination of a decade-long trend altering 60 years of public assistance policy to low-income families, eliminated the Aid to Families with Dependent Children programme and replaced it with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families block grant to the states. The most significant policy changes associated with this are the move towards a ‘work first’ approach to public assistance, and the removal of the entitlement status from federal cash aid (with limited exceptions, a family can receive federal cash assistance for a maximum of 60 months in a lifetime under Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). Recognizing that these changes would increase the demand for affordable child care among low-income parents, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act also included increased funding for child care subsidies ($600 million in fiscal year 1997) and combined earlier subsidy programmes into a single block grant (the Child Care and Development Fund) to provide more flexibility to states in designing their child care assistance programmes.
In 1993, Congress provided further help to families with children with passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires most employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to employees at the birth of their child with the assurance that they will retain their job. This new law was a major step forward for the United States in creating a more family-friendly work environment, but still leaves it as one of only five countries that do not require paid maternity leave—the others are Australia, New Zealand, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea (Emig 1999).
At the state level during the 1990s, support for child care also increased significantly due to a range of factors, including the federal matching requirements for funding, a growing interest in school readiness, and an increased understanding of child care as a necessary service to help low-income mothers into the labour force. As a result of this activity, this decade has closed with a child care subsidy system in every state, a broad range of funding and initiatives to improve the quality and supply of care, a significant expansion of state prekindergarten efforts, and an understanding of the importance of child care and early education by policy-makers and the public. As a result, there has been a significant increase in the use of more formal child care centres in the United States instead of the use of home care for children while their parents are at work. In 1991 nearly 25 per cent of mothers with children under the age of 5 years used a child care centre or a preschool as their primary care arrangement, compared with 13 per cent in 1977. In fact, a large majority of children in the United States now spend at least some portion of their childhood in the care of individuals other than their parents. Moreover, recent research has linked participation in formal child care and early education settings to school readiness, especially for children from families receiving welfare (Zaslow et al. 1998).
As a policy issue, the growing use of non-parental care has two important dimensions that will continue to frame political debate in the United States in the twenty-first century. First, child care is an essential support service for working parents, especially for single-parent and low-income families where the cost and availability of care can either support or undermine efforts to find or retain employment. The second dimension is the quality of the services that child care provides for children. Child care arrangements are the environments where many American preschool children now spend large portions of their day during critical developmental years, and the quality of this care plays a role in their social and cognitive development. This dimension of care is important regardless of work status since many parents in the United States now choose to have their child in some form of child care before they enter school even if one parent is at home. Among United States school-age children, there is also a growing interest in having before- and after-school programmes provide an environment where children can continue to learn (i.e. to expand the time spent in instruction), and where they are supervised at times of the day when the probability of their engaging in high-risk behaviours is highest.
Historically, federal and state efforts to address the two different dimensions of non-parental care have been characterized by separate policy processes. While this has been changing in recent years, policies dedicated to early childhood education (state pre-kindergarten and Head Start, for example) have often been developed with relatively little attention to child care policies and to the employment needs of the parents. Alternatively, child care policies have often been developed as an employment support service and focus much less on ensuring that children are provided with an environment which supports their social and cognitive development. These separate policy tracks present a number of challenges because they manifest the two different and sometimes competing policy priorities of child care. Furthermore, they create a distinction that does not exist when parents make decisions about child care, as parents look for child care programmes that allow them both to work and meet the needs of their children.
With regard to cost, child care is a major expense for most American families. In the autumn of 1993, for example, the average amount spent on child care for a preschool-age child was over $4000 (Casper 1995). While United States families above the poverty line spend an average of about 7 per cent of yearly earnings on child care, the financial burden is much greater for a low-income mother working at a minimum wage job who requires nearly 40 per cent of her income (Kisker and Ross 1997). While many low-income families find free sources of child care, significant numbers of low-income families do not have or do not want this option. The problem is particularly complicated for welfare mothers, because the skills of parents leaving welfare for work are low and their earnings are not expected to increase significantly over the long term (Burtless 1995, 1997). This problem has been recognized by federal and state governments in the United States, particularly since cost can create a major barrier to employment as well as a potential threat to the safety and well being of children when parents cannot afford decent quality care (Berger and Black 1992; US General Accounting Office 1994). As a consequence, there has been a significant expansion of public investment to reduce the child care cost faced by families, and in so doing to increase the range of child care settings parents can afford.
The quality of child care is another ongoing issue of concern, especially given evidence that it is inadequate in the United States (Adams 1990). A study of the quality of child care centres in four states, for example, found that only 14 per cent of the rooms provided good quality care (Helburn and Culkin 1995), and a study of the quality of family child care homes found similarly disturbing results (Galinsky et al. 1994). To address this concern, the federal government has started to require that states spend a portion of their funds on boosting quality. As a consequence, the last decade has seen a significant effort to improve the training and qualifications of child care providers, develop child care resource and referral networks, create salary-enhancement initiatives, provide targeted funds to improve quality and supply, and so forth. Moreover, policy-makers have continued to focus on the importance of such investment, as evidenced by the recent decision of Congress to earmark funds to improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers, as well as by the continued expansion of state efforts to improve quality (Blank and Adams 1997).
Head Start, started in 1965, serves the poorest American families by providing education, health, social services, and nutrition to over 800 000 children each year. Recent efforts have been made to significantly raise the quality of these programmes and these appear to be paying off. For example, a recent study of the health component of Head Start found that children who were enrolled in this preschool programme were more likely to have up-to-date immunizations, to have speech and language difficulties identified, and to have their dental problems identified and addressed (Keane et al. 1996).
The last area of policy concern, the supply of child care, has been a growing problem especially for certain types of child care, including care for some age groups (in particular, infant and toddler care, and school-age child care), children with disabilities, families who live in rural areas or high-density urban poverty areas, families who work non-traditional hours or have irregular schedules, and families with sick children (Siegel and Loman 1991; Clark and Long 1995; Fuller and Liang 1995; US General Accounting Office 1995). As a result, there has been growing interest in identifying effective ways to improve the supply of particular forms of child care. For example, federal government funding has allowed states to engage in a variety of supply-building initiatives, including targeted recruitment and training efforts, start-up grants or loans, other targeted loan programmes, efforts to finance construction and facility development, targeted grants or contracts, training initiatives to help welfare mothers become child care workers, public–private partnerships to increase the involvement of employers, and subsidy policies such as higher reimbursement rates for certain types of care.
The negative consequences of the family changes discussed in this chapter have been somewhat mitigated in most European countries because, unlike the United States, there has been a strong tradition of universal family-oriented policies and programmes rather than limited programmes targeted at low-income parents and/or children. Access to health care is nearly universal in most European Union countries, as is the provision of universal cash payments to families with children. Such family allowances date back to the nineteenth century in Europe, but generally grew after the Second World War thanks in large part to far less divisive attitudes about family assistance than those found in the United States. How different industrialized countries have dealt with families does, however, vary as we enter the twenty-first century.
The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have in recent years paralleled the United States as family policy today is more need based and less universal. This is not surprising, given their shared tradition of non-intervention in the personal life of individuals. Only the United Kingdom, like its European Union partners, continues to provide a universal child benefit, although the level of assistance is below that of the Scandinavian countries (Kamerman and Kahn 1998). All four nations provide family-related tax benefits, as does the United States (Kamerman and Kahn 1998).
Canada provides about 17 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, and 10 weeks of additional parental leave under the Unemployment Insurance Program (Kamerman and Kahn 1998). The United Kingdom’s policies were relatively restrictive until forced to adopt the European Union standard of 14-week leave to all working women, with benefits at the level of sick pay (Kamerman and Kahn 1998). New Zealand provides 14 weeks of unpaid maternity leave and one year of unpaid parental leave (Kamerman and Kahn 1998). As noted above, in the United States a major political fight was required to adopt parental leave policies that are modest by European standards at 12 weeks of unpaid leave.
With regard to child care, the United Kingdom, like the United States, has emphasized the role of the marketplace in determining what types of services should be available, and has taken a view that government should not intrude in family decisions about the care of children (Fincher 1996). In the United Kingdom, for example, most children under the age of 3 years are cared for by a parent or a relative. Australia and Canada also lack a universal child care provision, with the political debate focusing on the potential negative effect of government regulation on the availability of child care choices (Fincher 1996). In Canada, for example, public nurseries were created during the Second World War, only to be terminated when the war ended. Later, a system was established which resembles that of the United States, with federal and state/provincial cost-sharing for the provision of subsidies to low-income families, and the regulation/licensing of providers delegated to the state/provincial governments (Fincher 1996).
Scandinavia presents a very different approach to government support to families. For example, Denmark, like all Scandinavian countries, provides health insurance for all workers, preventive health care services for children, and pre- and postnatal care for pregnant women. Maternity leave benefits are also well financed, providing for full salary coverage from 1 month prior to birth until 14 weeks afterwards (Soren 1990). All families with children under age 18 also receive a cash allowance, and this is extended to single parents and for out-of-wedlock children (Soren 1990). Child care is also subsidized.
Alternatively, Sweden’s policies have been driven by a desire to encourage higher birth rates and women’s participation in the labour force (Fincher 1996). By 1987, nearly half of all preschoolers were being cared for in the public child care system, though the cost and availability of care varied locally (Fincher 1996). Sweden has also developed a more comprehensive ‘family’ policy orientation that includes child care but which also provides for the most developed parental leave policy with a 90 per cent income-replacement rate, and policies to encourage equal parenting between men and women.
As was seen in the earlier discussion, the highest rates of illegitimacy are found in Sweden and Denmark, and it is argued by some that the very liberal approach to social benefits has encouraged this trend. These two countries cycle up to 50 per cent of their gross domestic product through the state. By comparison, Korea and Japan—with minimal welfare states—have two of the lowest rates of divorce and non-marital childbearing in the world.
Looking elsewhere in Western Europe, France has a national commitment to supporting families and allowances are provided to all families with at least two children under the age of 17 (or 20 if in school) without the limitation of a means test. There is also a young-child benefit paid for 5 months prior to birth through to 3 months after birth, and this is combined with a maternity benefit that provides 90 per cent of the mother’s salary for 16 weeks (or 26 weeks for a third child or more) (Commaille 1990). Child care support is also provided and is among the highest in Europe, matching those found in Denmark and Sweden.
In part, this strong support of families is due to the unique position of France among European states. since its population actually declined during the post-War period when populations were growing throughout Europe. This led to a significant government focus on family-oriented policies during the last 40 years, leading to fertility rates that are now above the European Union average, and an above-average population growth rate (Rothenbacher 1998a). However, France also has a situation in which nearly 40 per cent of all births are conceived out of wedlock as part of non-marital consensual partnerships.
In Spain, birth rates have been falling for the last 20 years and are now among the lowest in the world due, at least in part, to the dramatic changes in family law and policy that occurred in 1981—civil marriage became an option, responsibility for divorce shifted from the church to the state, abortion was legalized, and cohabiting and homosexual couples can now register their unions (Guerrero 1997). As a result, marriage has been increasingly delayed, there has been a dramatic drop in the birth rate, the divorce rate has risen, and female employment has increased (Guerrero 1997).
German family policy, like that of the United States, is primarily centred around the tax system with the leading government expenditures for families being the child tax allowances and other deductions (Bahle 1998). The next largest component of federal expenditures, accounting for 20 per cent of the total, is for family cash benefits, primarily the general child benefit (Bahle 1998). Direct services account for a relatively small share of all expenditures, especially child care subsidies which account for about 4 per cent of total expenditures (Bahle 1998).
The end of the twentieth century brought the globalization of markets and culture and, as shown in this chapter, surprisingly similar changes in the nature of the family unit. Although the magnitude of these trends differs across nations, largely in response to unique political and cultural factors, the common patterns may be signalling a fundamental social transformation. Birth rates are declining in response to changes in medical technology, the role of women in society, the costs (and benefits) of having children, and a variety of other social and lifestyle changes. Young adults are delaying marriage and pregnancy, often due to increased time spent on education and training, and once married the importance of having children has declined as has the desired family size. The dissolution of marriages has also become more common, as has cohabitation and non-marital childbearing, leading to an increasing variety of family forms and structures. Finally, women are increasingly playing important roles in the workforce and in society more generally, leading to significant changes in traditional gender roles and expectations. Such broad social changes are likely to have long-term social and economic consequences, especially for the more vulnerable members of society, particularly women and children.
Why have these changes occurred? Moralists point to negative changes in social norms and values, others to new economic competition associated with the postindustrial information age, and still others blame changes in public policies. In all likelihood there is no single cause. Moreover, it is not clear that these transformations are necessarily all bad, nor long term in their effect. Instead, it may be that we are seeing a ‘temporary adjustment’ to a new world order where information and knowledge, rather than physical prowess, determine economic well being. And the globalization of knowledge—spread at increasing speed and decreasing cost—may in fact improve the life chances for more people than may be harmed by these transitory adjustments.
As Skolnick (1997) points out, the great transformations that we are seeing are not that different from that which were observed during previous social upheavals. For example, during the change from a preindustrial agrarian society to the urban-centred industrial society in the late nineteenth century there was a breaking of the traditional tie between the place of work and family. With the advent of industrialization, fathers left home to go to work, thereby disrupting long-existing patterns of daily family life, as well as cultural and gender roles. In particular, the home was transformed from a place of work to a safe haven for mothers to raise children, and provide a place of domestic tranquillity for the working father. But the reality was that many individuals did not live in such ideal circumstances, especially the working class and ethnic minorities, in the United States and other Western nations. The ‘traditional’ notion of a breadwinner father and home-maker mother is actually an uncommon arrangement associated with the early stages of industrial development and primarily for middle-class families (Davis 1988). As industrialization grows, more and more women find employment in the service sector (offices, schools, hospitals, and stores) and this pattern is seen in different countries that are at different stages of industrialization (Davis 1988).
As a result, we are now seeing another evolution of marriage and family to what Skolnick (1997) calls the ‘companionate style’, where adult fulfilment is as important as childbearing. However, the importance of children may, in fact, be increasing as child mortality is now relatively uncommon in the industrialized world (compared with earlier periods). Parents today are far less inclined to have an ‘extra’ child as protection against the early loss of a child, and are more likely to use birth control as a way to plan families for the desirable (and affordable) number and spacing (e.g. not to have multiple costs of college at the same time) of children. Longer lifespans have also extended the potential length of marriages (and ironically increased the opportunity for divorce and separation), and the rising number of elderly has made the role of grandparents more prominent in the lives of children and young adults. At the time when marriage seems less desirable and more fragile, the importance of children and their involvement with ‘family members’ may actually be increasing.
These are profound changes and, as with the dawning of the information age, we do not know where these social transformations will lead. Nor is it clear whether these changes are, by themselves, good or bad. For example, lower birth rates and smaller families, and delayed marriage and childbearing, especially if tied to greater investments in human capital development, are not necessarily negative trends requiring some form of government policy intervention. Instead, the challenge for policy-makers is to find ways to harness these changes for good—for example, supporting the continuing growth in opportunity and equality for women—while at the same time providing sufficient protections for the well being of our most vulnerable populations: children, single mothers, working mothers, and the elderly. This may include a variety of programmes, including policies geared towards providing an economic ‘safety net’ as protection against poverty, supporting the provision of affordable and high-quality child care and health programmes, and supporting ‘family friendly’ work environments, especially for pregnant women and mothers with young children. Most important, governments need to be aware of the changes that are sweeping across society, and to be prepared to respond to the changing nature of the basic family unit. Families have endured throughout most of human history and, although they may look different in the future, are certain to maintain their role as the foundation of our daily lives.
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