This article will focus on the impact of government policy on families. It will provide a description and analysis of the US government's public position on the family and the state as well as the government agency that oversees and implements family-related policy, the Administration for Children and Families. This article will introduce the 1996 reforms to the welfare state and discuss the related consequences to families and issues of child mistreatment, childcare problems, child Medicaid enrollment levels, and childhood poverty. Government treatment of families with illegal immigration status will also be addressed.
Keywords Administration for Children and Families; Childhood Poverty; Family; Public Policy; Social Policy; Welfare State
Families, which the United States Census Bureau considers to be "two or more persons related by birth, marriage or adoption who reside in the same household" ("Current population survey," 2010), provide stability for American society. Families, understood to be a type of social institution, transmit cultural and social norms, values, and behaviors. Families are a source of familial and political socialization. The US government and industrialized nations in general depend on families to successfully care for, educate, feed, house, nurture, and socialize children. The US government recognizes the important role of families in stabilizing society and socializing children and, in response, develops and implements policy to help strengthen the family unit. The explicit goal of American family policy is to improve the overall well-being of American children.
In the United States, public policies address the needs and interests of multiple constituents and stakeholders including families as well as ethnic and racial minorities, children, veterans, women, aging Americans, and the disabled. Government policies implicitly and explicitly, intentionally and unintentionally affect American families by a very wide range of public policy concerning education, taxes, monetary support, childcare, emergency relief, and marriage law. Public policy refers to the basic policy or set of policies that serve as the foundation for public laws. Public policy is often characterized as a social goal, enabling objective, or social solution. The policy-making process is a problem-solving activity that solves or resolves a problem or conflict in society. Public policy, requested by society and enacted by government, unites and mediates the relationship between society and government. Public policy is created within specific historical and socio-cultural contexts and political systems. Public policy encompasses and regulates nearly all areas of human and social behavior. One particularly large body of public policy, often referred to as social policy, concerns families and children.
Social policy, like all public policy, is an expression of values held by both citizens and government. Family policy is a type of social policy. Social policy is an expression of moral and economic values and viewpoints. In the United States, social policies that are enacted through social welfare programs serve as a social safety net and regulate and govern human behavior in areas such as general morality and quality of life. Social policy is created, in part, to respond to pressing social needs such as poverty, social exclusion, unemployment, aging, children, mental illness, learning disabilities, and physical disabilities. Social policy is developed, enacted, and implemented to create self-sufficiency, equity, and social cohesion for all members of a society. Examples of significant social policy created in the United States during the twentieth-century that impact families include the social security system, welfare, public housing, hunger and nutrition programs, childcare and child support, health care for people on low incomes, public education, and the social and health services of the Veterans' Administration. All social policies reflect moral, political, and economic choices.
The US government represents itself as pro-family. In contrast, critics of government family-centered policy argue that much of the government policy in the United States negatively affects American families. This article describes both of these positions will serve to contrast the discussion of critical appraisals of the impact that federal welfare reform has had on families. This article will introduce the 1996 reforms to the welfare state and discuss the related consequences to families and issues of child mistreatment, childcare problems, child Medicaid enrollment levels, and childhood poverty.
The US Government's Public Stance on the Family
In 2004, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and the US Department of Health and Human Services published "A Celebration of the Family — Observance of the Tenth Anniversary of the International Year of the Family," which was a report to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly's International Year of the Family in 1994. The report emphasized the foundational role of the family in the United States and recognized the family as a social institution vital to the health and prosperity of the nation. The report had three main goals: to highlight the family as a social institution, to explore the relationship between family and state, and to offer values to guide the government’s family policy.
Themes that appear in the report and in US social policy concern the role marriage plays within a family unit, the relationship of the family and the common social good, and the pressures modern families face. The United States, as described in the report, believes that the relationship between family and state allows the government to offer families three broad categories of support including “respecting the prerogatives of families, proactive support for healthy marriages, and supporting all families that need assistance” (“A celebration...”, 2004, p.7).
The main principles of government family policy, as described in the 2004 Administration for Children and Families' report, include the following (“A celebration...”, 2004, p.9):
- Principle 1: Government ought to create the conditions that allow families to thrive.
- Principle 2: Government ought to recognize the unique and irreplaceable contributions of both mothers and fathers to the lives of their children.
- Principle 3: Government ought to do what it can to strengthen healthy marriages and the two-parent family.
- Principle 4: Government must support children and families regardless of family structure.
The US government works to put these principles into practice through the development of US family policy. Policies include comprehensive initiatives to help all families succeed, as well as more targeted policies to encourage healthy marriages, responsible fatherhood, and measures to assist children who specifically need help. Significant family policies have included:
- Taxes and workforce participation: Federal tax cuts, most notably in 2003 by Republican president George W. Bush and extended in 2012 by Democrat president Barack Obama, were designed to lessen the tax burden on families and help reduce the necessity of dual-income families.
- Education: The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was crafted to among other things provide parents with more options in the choice of schools their children can attend and to level the playing field for children taking standardized tests.
- Health-care: The Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 is intended to offer senior citizens greater choices of prescription drugs as well as establish Health Savings Accounts for the general population. In 2010, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly called Obamacare, sought to reform a number of aspects of the US health insurance industry as well as improve the access to and quality of health care services.
- Housing and Home Ownership: George W. Bush’s American Dream Downpayment Act of 2003 and the housing initiatives supported by the Obama administration in 2012 were passed to assist families and families of service men and women build long-term financial security through homeownership.
- Marriage: Marriage: The Healthy Marriage Initiative of 2004 assisted couples in accessing services to help them acquire skills and knowledge needed to build and maintain healthy marriages and reduce the instances of divorce.
- Fatherhood: Fatherhood: The Fatherhood Initiative of 1995 was created by the Clinton administration and was under the auspices of the Head Start program for disadvantaged children. It coordinated a series of grants, publications, and conferences, to encourage fathers to participate in their children’s healthy early childhood development.
- Children in Need: Through the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, the Tax Relief Act of 2001 and the Adoption Promotion Act of 2003, the US government has worked to streamline, encourage, and accelerate the adoption process.
An important example of government policy that affects families in all socio-economic levels includes “family-friendly” work policy of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (Saltzstein & Ting, 2001). The Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, is a federal law that provides individuals with a maximum of twelve weeks leave from work based on medical necessity for self or immediate family members including children, parents, or a spouse. The Family and Medical Leave Act has significant influence on parents’ leave taking and job satisfaction (Han & Waldfogel, 2003).
Administration for Children
US government family policy, as described in the previous section is, in most cases, overseen and implemented through the Administration for Children and Families (ACF). The Administration for Children and Families (enacted in 1995 through public law 60 FR 40586-94 and 1998 through public law 63 FR 81 — 87) "provides national leadership and direction to plan, manage, and coordinate the nationwide administration of comprehensive and supportive programs for vulnerable children and families" ("About ACF", 2007). The Administration for Children and Families 2013 fiscal year budget for mandatory and discretionary programs...
How do social policies affect family life? This post defines social policy and then examines the 1969 Divorce Act, Maternity and Paternity Acts, the Civil Partnership Act and Child Benefit policies. It should be obvious how these are likely to impact marriage, divorce, family structure and men, women and children within the family.
What is social policy?
Social policy refers to the plans and actions of state agencies such as health and social services, the welfare benefits system and schools and other bodies.
Policies are usually based on laws introduced by governments that provide the framework within which these agencies will operate. For example, laws lay down who is entitled to each specific welfare benefit.
Most social policies affect families in some way or other. Some are aimed directly at families, such as laws governing marriage and divorce, abortion or contraception, child protection, adoption and so on.
Policies are not necessarily aimed specifically at families, but will have an effect in families. Such policies would include those on childcare, education, housing and crime. Furthermore, many policies that impact upon families are those that make changes to the legislation on taxation and benefits, such as child tax credits.
Recently, the Department for Education and Skills has been given a new name and expanded role. The creation of the Department for Children, Schools and Families suggest that the current government believe that to make a better society for the children of today, family life and education should not be treated as two separate areas of life.
A brief Overview of Some Important Social Policies of the last 50 years
There are many social policies which have affected family life over the years, so the summary below is necessarily selective!
1. The 1969 Divorce Act (and the 1984 Divorce Act)
Previous to 1969, one partner had to prove that the other was ‘at fault’ in order to be granted a divorce, however, following the Divorce Reform Act of 1969, a marriage could be ended if it had irretrievably broken down, and neither partner no longer had to prove “fault”. However, if only one partner wanted a divorce, they still had to wait 5 years from the date of marriage to get one. In 1984 this was changed so that a divorce could be granted within one year of marriage.
2. Maternity and Paternity Policy – The Employment Protection Act of 1975 and the ‘Paternity Act’ (2010)
Social responsibility for women’s health during childbearing was first recognised through the 1911 National Insurance Act. It included a universal maternal health benefit and a one off maternity grant of 30 shillings for insured women (around £119 in today’s money)
However, many women were routinely sacked for becoming pregnant until the late 1970s and the UK only introduced its first maternity leave legislation through the Employment Protection Act 1975. However, for the first 15 years (until 1990!) only about half of working women were eligible for it because of long qualifying periods of employment.
In 2003, male employees received paid statutory paternity leave for the first time, an entitlement that was extended in January 2010.
Today in the UK employees can take up to 52 weeks of Statutory Maternity Leave, of which the first two weeks after the baby is born is ‘compulsory’ maternity leave (4 weeks for women who work in a factory).
Since 2010 (following what is often called the ‘Paternity Act’) – This leave is divided into a two 26-week periods. After the first 26 weeks, the father of the child (or the mother’s partner) has the right to take up to 26 weeks’ leave if their partner returns to work, in effect taking the place of the mother at home. Eligible employees can take similar periods of Statutory Adoption Leave. It is unlawful to dismiss (or single out for redundancy) a pregnant employee for reasons connected with her pregnancy.
From 2015, parents will be given the right to share the care of their child in the first year after birth. Women in employment will retain their right to 52 weeks of maternity leave. Only mothers will be allowed to take leave in the first two weeks’ leave after birth. But after that parents can divide up the rest of the maternity leave.
3. The Civil partnerships Act 2004 and the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013
The Civil Partnership Act 2004 gave same-sex couples the rights and responsibilities similar to those in a civil marriage. The Act was introduced by the New Labour government in power at the time. Civil partners are entitled to the same property rights, the same exemptions on inheritance tax, social security and pension benefits as married couples. They also have the same ability to get parental responsibility for a partner’s children as well as reasonable maintenance, tenancy rights, insurance and next-of-kin rights in hospital and with doctors. There is a process similar to divorce for dissolving a civil partnership. 18,059 couples entered into a civil partnership between December 2005 and the end of December 2006, with approximately 6000 taking place each year since.
The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 allows same-sex couples to enter into a marriage in England and Wales on the same basis as heterosexual couples, and to convert Civil Partnerships to Marriages.
4. The Adoption Act 2002 (came into force 2005)
Not much to say about this one – In 2005, under New Labour, the law on adoption changed, giving unmarried couples, including gay couples, the right to adopt on the same basis as married couples.
5. The Child Benefit Acts (1975) and significant changes (1998 and 2013)
The Child Benefit Bill introduced for the first time a universal payment, paid for each child. The rate payable was £1/week for the first and £1.50 for each subsequent child. An additional 50p was payable to lone-parent families.
Child Benefits increased in line with inflation, until 1998, when the new Labour government increased the first child rate by more than 20%, and abolished the Lone Parent rate. Rates increased again in line with inflation until 2010, since which time they have been frozen.
Effective from 7 January 2013, Child Benefit became means tested – those earning more than £50,000 per year would have part of their benefit withdrawn, and if earning over £60,000, would receive nothing at all.
6. Changes to Income Support for Lone Parents since 2014
There are two main types of out of work benefit for working age people in the UK – Income Support and the Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA). Income support is for those deemed unable to work, JSA is for those who are able to work but currently out of work, and is conditional on proving that you are looking for work. Income support for lone parents over 18 is currently £73.10, the same as for non-parents on both Income Support and JSA.
- To qualify for Income Support you must be all of the following:
between 16 and Pension Credit qualifying age
- Pregnant, or a carer, or a lone parent with a child under 5 or, in some cases, unable to work because you’re sick or disabled.
- Have no income or a low income (your partner’s income and savings will be taken into account)
- Be working less than 16 hours a week (and your partner works less than 24 hours a week)
- Living in England, Scotland or Wales
Recent changes to the rules mean that single parents of children aged 3-4 are now required to attend more work readiness interviews with their local job centre in preparation for starting work when their children reach school age.
How do Social Policies Affect Family Life?
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