Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Cross-National Comparisons of Family Policies: The Relevance of National Approaches to Social Welfare*

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Cross-National Comparisons of Family Policies: The Relevance of National Approaches to Social Welfare*

Article excerpt


There are many factors that affect the lives of families. For example, the existence (or lack) of universal daycare and/or lengthy maternity and parental leaves with a fair replacement wage has serious implications for families that have children. Moreover, the extent to which there are accessible supports for families reinforces particular class and gender structures in society. The nature and structure of family policies, therefore, plays a central role in shaping the experiences and lives of families as well as their social surroundings.

While welfare state regimes models have greatly increased our understanding of the social, political, and historical factors that influence the development of divergent forms of social provision, they were developed around the analysis of labour market policies.1 The primary intent of this paper, therefore, is to examine family policies using a method commonly used by welfare state theorists in order to demonstrate that family-focused policies are largely connected to a country's overall approach to social welfare. In doing this, this paper focuses on the ways in which family policies reinforce certain forms of class stratification, where most current welfare state research stresses the impact family policies have on gender stratification.2 It will be argued that the congruence between family policy structures and overall national approaches to social welfare confirms that understanding family policy development can benefit from existing understandings of the historical, economic, and political underpinnings of welfare state regimes.


Esping-Andersen (1990) identified three "typical" clusters of welfare states in his analysis of sickness, unemployment, and pension benefits. Liberal welfare states are dominated by the logic of the market.3 Benefits are modest, often means-tested and stigmatizing. These welfare states tend to be low spenders. Conservative/corporatist welfare states are less controlled by markets but their benefits tend to be stratified, and therefore their overall redistributive effects are minimal. These regimes are generally shaped by historical church traditions, and this tends to determine their conservative attitudes toward social policy.4 The third welfare state type is the social democratic. This type is based on universalism and "usurpation" of the market (Pierson, 1998, p. 779).5 It is committed to the principle of full employment, and social spending tends to be high, while spending on tax benefits, which are less redistributive, is comparatively low.

Cross-national and cross-cultural analyses of policies that affect families can benefit from such well-established explanations of divergent welfare state histories, politics and structures. A lot of welfare state research has illustrated the role that various historical and political factors (like history of labour mobilization, religious ideology, economic conditions, partisan politics, and foreign trade-see for a few examples Castles and Mitchell, 1992; Esping-Andersen, 1990; 1999; Korpi and Palme, 1998; Leibfried, 1993; Olsen, 2002; Ware and Goodwin, 1990) have had in shaping the form and expanse of welfare states. Such factors, which may in some cases seem further removed from the specific analysis of family policies, are nonetheless important within the field of family research.

However, the majority of work comparing family policies across different countries has either not interpreted family policies as being components of a more general welfare state approach involving labour market, healthcare, social security, and otiier areas of social provision (for examples, Baker 1995; Bradshaw and Finch, 2002; Brewster and Rindfuss, 2000; Gauthier, 1996; 2002; Kamerman, 1995; Waldfogel, 2001), or has used family policies as a way of including gender stratification into an otherwise class stratification-based approach (discussed below). Further, case studies of the development of particular family policies in the United States and Canada reveal many characteristics associated with liberal welfare states, but have not directly examined the implications of the factors that have shaped the welfare state type within which the policies have developed (Aldous, 1997; Elison, 1997; Lovenduski and Norris, 1993; Marks, 1997; White 1997). …

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