By Rachel Henneck
Council on Contemporary Families
Twentieth century social policy in industrial nations was originally formulated on the assumption that one particular family model was both the most prevalent and the most desirable. A family was supposed to consist of a married couple – one male breadwinner and one female homemaker – and their children, and the wages of a man were assumed to be enough to support a wife and children. Almost all women were assumed to be housewives.
Accordingly, women and children’s access to market income was organized through marriage, as was their access to social insurance. Male workers could claim social insurance benefits for themselves and their dependents from the state, unions, employers and other institutions, but women seldom had any way to make claims independently. When husbands died, widows with children could draw pensions from the state and/or receive aid from the husband’s union, while women without husbands usually had no legal way to make such claims. At the same time, work was organized on the assumption that all men were married to women who could devote their time and labor to the care of children.
In the last 50 years, however, the work-family-household arrangements on which this system was based have disappeared. As early as the second half of the twentieth century, the employment of married women increased dramatically in Europe and the US, and to a lesser extent in Japan (Thistle 16). By the 1980s, “mother” and “worker” were no longer mutually exclusive roles and the workplace was no longer occupied primarily by men without caregiving responsibilities. At the same time, the number of women and children who have access to a husband’s wage and pension benefits has decreased. Starting about 30 years ago, even before divorce laws were liberalized in some countries, divorce rates began to rise across Europe and North America (Festy 312). Households headed by unmarried women have increased along with divorce rates, and cohabitation, both prior to marriage and as an alternative to marriage, is on the rise. More women are mothers without being wives.
In the space of about 30 years, the institution of marriage lost its dominance as the main mechanism by which income is distributed to women and children, while the workplace lost its status as a place where employees’ family responsibilities could be ignored. The private, unpaid, 24-hour caregiving work of women can no longer be taken for granted by employers or society as a whole, nor can it be taken for granted that most women and children have access to a full-time male worker’s income and benefits. How have industrial nations changed, or failed to change, their social policies in response?
In the US, Japan, Germany, France, and Italy, the family remains the most important provider of direct care for children and market earnings are the primary source of most families’ income. But since women’s move into the workforce has thrown into question so much about caring for children that had previously been taken for granted, the state has gotten involved in making sure that women still can provide care while being workers. To a greater or lesser extent, job-protected parental leave policy has helped ease the tension between the mother and worker roles. Many countries have subsidized child care to ensure that children have access to high-quality care while their parents work. Child benefits and family allowances, which originated when the political goal was to keep women in the home and encourage childbearing, have in some cases remained an important benefit in countries with high rates of maternal employment. These state policies and provisions, however, vary enormously.
The US, for example, encourages families to seek market-based solutions to work-family conflict. Little attempt is made to subsidize women to drop out of the workforce, but there is also little attempt to subsidize family caregiving for working mothers. Social supports for working mothers and their children are primarily reserved for only the most impoverished families. Italy and Germany, on the other hand, encourage women to drop out of the workforce for long periods of time by offering lengthy paid leave, which get much higher fiscal and social priority than investments in child care. In Japan, family policy benefits have developed considerably in recent years, due to the increase in working mothers and concern about the birth rate, but the private homemaker-breadwinner household is still the normative expectation. France represents a different model, subsidizing child care rather than solely lengthy leave provision for women. With 95 percent of its three- to five-year-olds in public child care and preschools, France enables mothers to participate in the labor market (Lewis 164). In Germany, Italy, and Japan, however, child care is more scarce and short school hours make it very difficult for both parents to work full-time.
Maternity/parental leave is the most basic entitlement for working women, requiring employers to give workers their jobs back after taking necessary time off to give birth. The US introduced its first federal unpaid family and medical leave policy in 1993 for workers at medium- to large-sized firms. In France, the first paid maternity leave legislation was implemented eighty years earlier, in 1913 (Lewis 166). The length of leave varies between the countries discussed in this paper from up to three months unpaid in the US for some workers (partially paid in several states), to about three months at 60 percent pay in Japan (the rest of the first year at 40 percent pay), to three years paid in Germany and France.
Italy offers an additional 5 years unpaid after the first three paid years. Child benefits and family allowances, in the form of birth payments and/or monthly allowances that pay a certain amount for each child, are often means-tested or limited to those whose income is below a certain threshold, though most Western European countries also offer a basic benefit universally. Countries that offer universal benefits, such as France, tend to have lower poverty rates-particularly among single-mother households, which are especially vulnerable to poverty-than those targeting low-income groups exclusively, such as the US.
In European countries, and very recently in Japan, a strong impetus for the earliest child benefit legislation was concern about population decline due to low fertility. Pronatalist policy gives women greater cash benefits for bearing additional children, but it’s important to note that the benefits have not so far actually served to spur population growth: Despite pronatalist efforts, fertility remains low in France, Germany, Italy and Japan, but in the US, which has no pronatalist political agenda, fertility is highest at around 2.1 children per woman.
The extent to which a country makes child care services available and accessible, and how sufficient are funds provided for child care to meet the demand for them, reflect beliefs about the centrality of parental care. For example, much of the antipathy toward child care (public or private sector) among Americans stems from the belief that non-parents can never give as good care to a child as his or her ‘real’ parents. Despite its appearance as sweeping new legislation, Germany’s recent measure entitling every child between three and six a place in a day care center also reflects Germany’s typical preference for private at-home care by mothers, since the centers are part-time and relatively expensive, and thus incompatible with work hours (Bettio and Prechal 31). France, on the other hand, sees its public child care/nursery schools as a way to ensure high-quality early childhood education for all children and enhance community cohesion. Even many stay-at-home mothers in France send their children to the public nursery schools (Bergmann).
Child care provisions also have economic consequences for working parents. In the US, child care costs eat up one quarter of the income of families in poverty (Blau 9), while low-income parents in France typically pay nothing for child care. These provisions and assumptions can restrict or open up opportunities in the workplace for mothers. In a study of Detroit-area mothers, every third woman interviewed reported that problems with child care accessibility constrained her employment (Hank and Kreyenfeld 3).
The extent to which benefits continue to be conditioned on marriage is important as well. In all these countries except Japan, a substantial minority of children are born out of wedlock and about half spend some part of their childhood without married parents. Countries like the US and Germany give married couples a special place in the tax structure, a privilege Germany reserves for heterosexual marriages even though the country recently legalized same-sex registered partnerships.
Yet some policies exclude contemporary married couples from benefits. The joint-filing system of taxation in the US and Germany is a privilege for married couples, but it has become a penalty for many dual-earner couples in the US. Two incomes combined push the couple into a higher tax bracket than each would have been in if they filed as singles. The lower income of the two earners (usually the woman) is thus taxed at a higher marginal rate (Crittenden). Also, 16 states still penalize married-couple families in their welfare policies.
Compared to the scope of and level of support offered by family policies of France, Germany and Italy, the US appears to have a low level of political commitment to the well-being of families, lacking even the guarantee of unpaid leave to all workers.
American family policy is not undeveloped because American working families don’t need support: 59 percent of women with children under one year are employed and even among married-couple families, 51 percent are dual-earner (Lewin). 55 percent of families put their youngest child in non-parental care (Blau 69). Despite the fact that most mothers work for pay outside the home, individual families are expected to work things out for child care between themselves and the market. The US has no public system of child care, and only about 10 percent of families receive child care subsidy (other than the child care tax credit).
Also, there is no universal cash benefit for families with children, only indirect tax credits.
Deductions and exemptions go to those who make enough to owe taxes, while the means-tested Earned Income Tax Credit is for the working poor and welfare benefits are for very impoverished families. The most active domain of US family policy with the widest range of benefits is that which serves the poorest of the poor. Federal welfare policy offers means-tested benefits through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF was meant to fix the old US welfare policy problem of anti-work incentives by requiring recipients to get jobs within a short period of time and placing a five-year lifetime limit on receipt of aid. TANF is distributed from federal block grants largely at the discretion of individual states.
The first and only federal parental leave legislation to be enacted in the United States was the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. It requires that those who employ 50 or more workers offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave for pregnancy and childbirth or medical disabilities (Blau and Ehrenberg 10). The FMLA also guarantees continued health insurance coverage during the leave for those whose employers offer health care insurance to current workers (Waldfogel 95). Under the FMLA, ‘child’ is defined not only as biological or adopted children, but also includes stepchildren, foster children, legal wards, and children of people acting ‘in loco parentis’ (Mitchell 275).
Because the FMLA doesn’t cover small firms, an estimated one-half of workers are left ineligible. But even many eligible employees do not take leave. According to the U.S. Commission on Leave, 64 percent of employees who need to but do not take FMLA to leave give the reason that they can’t afford the loss of pay (Gornick and Meyers 3).
Some states have implemented programs that make parental leave more accessible. The most significant is California’s new paid family leave law, which will go into effect in 2004. It will provide workers who pay into the state’s disability insurance program (13 million of California’s 16 million workers) with six weeks of job-protected leave at about half-salary (up to a limit of $728 per week) to care for a new child or an ill child, parent, spouse or domestic partner. If employers will not give the leave, workers can quit and still collect benefits, which are funded completely by payroll deductions for disability insurance. If this is something that people may not be aware of, a quick google search into something like Individual disability insurance could help make the decision of whether this form of insurance may be beneficial. As there is a lot to understand when it comes to this form of insurance, it is best to at least get to grips with the basics. Employers may require workers to use up to two weeks of their vacation time before receiving paid leave benefits (Edds).
For those meeting income eligibility requirements, Minnesota’s At-Home Infant Care program pays parents 75% of the maximum rate payable for full-time care of infants in a licensed family day care. Montana has a similar program, and in Missouri, 1998 legislation set up the “Early Childhood Development Fund,” which comes from a portion of revenues from entrance fees to Riverboat Casinos. One of its programs subsidizes eligible low-income families who complete a course and choose to care for their infants or toddlers at home (National Partnership).
Aside from California, New Jersey and New York offer partial wage replacement during pregnancy and childbirth through their Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) programs, and legislators in other states are trying to pass similar measures (National Partnership). Many states give some public employees the right to use their accrued paid sick leave for the care of family members. As of the early 1990s, one-quarter of American women were estimated to have coverage under laws providing TDI benefits during FMLA and/or additional state-provided leave (Gornick and Meyers 3).
Child Benefits/Family Allowances
Although the US reserves most of its youth subsidy for those who reach college age and offers no universal benefit for children, several tax credits and exemptions are available to families with children, although they exclude those who don’t make enough to owe taxes or those who don’t file. Families with one or more dependent children under age 17 may claim a child tax credit of $600 (IRS). Taxpayers may reduce their taxable income by claiming a $2,900 exemption for each dependent (including children and people who received at least half their financial support from the taxpayer) (IRS).
Many low-income workers with at least two children receive refundable Earned Income Tax Credits of up to $3,816 per year (Coontz and Folbre), while parents with one child are eligible for an earned income credit of up to $2,353 (Berube and Forman 2). The Earned Income Tax Credit targets the working poor and is worth forty cents for every earned dollar for those earning between $8,900 and $11,610 (Legislative Analyst’s Office). However, it phases out rapidly after income reaches $12,460, which could be considered a penalty for dual-earner families. The credit is zero when income reaches $30,580. Still, the EITC is a very important subsidy for the people who receive it: In 1999, Earned Income Tax Credits lifted 4.6 million people above the poverty line (Berube and Forman 2).
Additional benefits for impoverished families are offered through the means-tested Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. States offer welfare benefits from federal block grants, and individual recipients receive aid for up to two years at a time, up to a lifetime maximum of five years. Currently, half of all TANF recipients are required to be in some work-related activity 30 hours per week, and new proposals would require 70 percent of all TANF recipients to work 40 hours per week (Pear, Lyter et al). States may extend the lifetime limit if no more than 20 percent of the caseload has exhausted the five-year limit. States are not allowed to use federal TANF money to assist most legal immigrants until they have been in the US for five years, though they may use funds from their own state-funded welfare programs (called Maintenance of Effort funds) to assist these immigrants. Fewer than half do so (Coven).
Subject to wide variation at the discretion of each state, benefits include cash assistance, wage supplements, child care subsidy, education and job training, and transportation (Coven). When offering benefits, states must determine that they support the federal goal of TANF to end the reliance of poor parents on government money by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage (Coven).
Economist Lynn Karoly’s congressional testimony explains that while work requirements have increased the employment of TANF recipients, their income has stayed about the same in states that reduce benefits as earnings increase, so those who started in poverty without jobs often remain in poverty with jobs. Findings from the Growing Up in Poverty Project show that the income of women who have been moved into jobs from welfare is about $12,000 annually, placing most below the poverty line (Fuller et al). Effects on earnings and employment are most positive when recipients can hold on to benefits while they earn more money (Karoly 7).
Two other goals of TANF are to “prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies” and “encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families” (Coven). Single mothers currently lose some of their benefits if they cannot identify the father of their children so that he can be required to make child support payments to the state, a portion of which is passed on to the mother and children. Wisconsin is the only state that gives mothers on welfare the full amount of fathers’ child support payments without reducing benefits. Recent proposals would have all states do as Wisconsin does, because research has confirmed that poor fathers have better relationships and more contact with their children when they know that all their support goes directly to the family. The current policy, which sends law enforcement to hunt down ‘deadbeat dads’ who were behind in child support payments to the state, often drives poor dads further away from their children (Harden).
For taxpayers with children, the IRS offers a credit against owed taxes equal to the percentage of a family’s income spent on child care, up to a limit of $4,800 (IRS).
Of families ‘on welfare,’ the proportion in paid employment or work activities increased from 11 percent in 1996 to 33 percent in 1999 (Schumacher, Greenberg and Duffy 13). Acknowledging the increased pressure on parents receiving TANF to find and keep jobs, the federal government has increased child care funding to the states (International Reform Monitor). Demand for child care has outstripped the increase in funding, however, and the policy infrastructure is not keeping up. Recent estimates from the federal government indicate that states are currently assisting only about 10 percent of the families potentially eligible under federal legislation, while child care costs take up one quarter of the income of families in poverty (Greenberg, Lombardi and Schumacher, Blau 9).
Only one employee in eight benefits from employer-sponsored child care, and Jody Heymann points out that even programs offering tax savings to those able to pay for their own child care (mostly non-poor, of middle- to upper-class status) are available to only three in ten people (Heymann 167).
“Conventional wisdom to the contrary, the United States remains an anomaly with regard to marriage. Americans continue to marry at a significantly higher rate than almost all other people living in the advanced industrialized Western countries” (Kamerman 231-232). The marriage rate is around 8.4 per 1000, much higher than that of the European countries (National Center for Health Statistics).
Federal legislation does not allow homosexual marriage and doesn’t give any legal status to cohabiting partners. In 1996, the politically conservative Defense of Marriage Act explicitly defined the terms ‘marriage’ and ‘spouse’ as applying only to one man and one woman, and also provided that no state must recognize same-sex marriages contracted in other states, “despite the constitutional rule that each state should give ‘full faith and credit’ to the public acts of others” (Cott 218).
The state of Vermont, however, enacted a Civil Union law in 2000 which provides eligible same-sex couples legal recognition in civil union, granting “all the same benefits, protections, and responsibilities under Vermont law