Family policies usually have two goals: to provide the best infrastructure for people to ”have as many children as they desire and to balance work and family life“. This affects the working environment, it structures care provisions within families and targets poverty in (and of) families as well.
While these general goals are consensual in society, they have to be broken down to individual needs. The pluralization of lifestyle does not make the task easier.
Welfare states provide a mix of services: The policies integrate parental leave systems, cash benefits as financial transfers and childcare institutions. Regions in Europe differ in emphasis they lay on measures in these areas. While in the Nordic countries providing childcare services is a clear priority, UK is rather generous in its financial support. Continental countries mostly offer a mix of services, with emphasis on family care during the first three years. Southern European countries have in all cases rather limited policies. There is no amount and no combination of measures which can be said to be optimal.
The following is information on some relevant data: With 4.2% GDP spent on public expenditure for family support, Great Britain is, after Ireland, the highest-ranking in Europe according to the OECD data in 2009. Germany spends about 3.2%, Sweden 3.8% and Denmark 3.9%. Most of the money in the northern countries is invested in infrastructure, with no investments being made to tax reduction, while in Great Britain direct tax transfers dominate. Childcare services might have an impact on fertility, but not worldwide: The USA has very low expenditure and a high fertility rate; the same is true for Poland and Switzerland as well.
There seems to be no evidence that providing childcare services automatically leads to higher fertility. Sometimes experts find that cash transfers and coverage of childcare services for children under the age of 3 have measurable influence on fertility, whereas the number of paid weeks of leave at birth has a much lower impact.
Looking at the data we find an essential problem of family policy: Data helps, but it is unclear which measure has what impact on which situation: Fertility? Employment? Not to speak of the well-being of parents and children. There is no determining relation between family policy measures and the outcome.
All these measures are focused on married couples, while cohabiting couples are treated differently, if at all, in most countries. This makes a difference. A special group at risk are still single parents, though welfare regimes provide measures for help.
What does this mean?
Family policies are national policies based on experiences, traditions and living habits in different countries. What works in one country cannot easily be transferred to another with the same impact. European Union as a body has little influence on family policy and introducing common measures may well result in failure. What the EU can do is to take measures on the social policy front: One of the most essential issues would most likely be to lower the gender pay gap and promote working conditions favorable for families.
What do you think should happen in your country in order to let family policies contribute to a society for people with equal life chances?
Sources: Luci-Greulich, A. & Thévenon, O. Eur J Population (2013) 29: 387. doi:10.1007/s10680-013-9295-4;
Hans Bertram, Carolin Deuflhard, Die überforderte Generation. Verlag Barbara Budrich, Opladen 2015.