Building Enduring Family Policies in the 21st Century: The Past as Prologue?

Karen Bogenschneider & Tom Corbett. Handbook of Contemporary Families. Editor: Marilyn Coleman & Lawrence H Ganong. Sage Publication. 2004.

Though it is not always recognized, public policy discourse in the United States has always had a family tilt: an underlying, often unexpressed premise that families are the basic building block in society, to be relied upon, protected, and nurtured. The American colonies imported the Elizabethan Poor Laws as the framework for a system in which the extended family was the fundamental societal unit responsible for impoverished individuals. The local town became the responsible jurisdiction only if the family failed in its primary role. Even then, town leaders would try to find and often provide financial support to other families in the community willing to care for the indigent.

It is one thing, however, to intuitively accept the importance of families to a strong and vital society. It is quite another to consciously and systematically place families at the center of the policy process. To do so, we must shift the nature of discourse from appreciating families to prioritizing them as worthy of study, investment, and political action. Families need to be viewed as an area of study that deserves federal support and encouragement, a specific population to be assessed as an indicator of societal health, and an explicit object of and criterion for evaluating the impact of policies and programs.

The field of family policy is young in terms of both intellectual inquiry and policy formation centered on the family concept. According to Kamerman and Kahn (1978), the field of family policy was formally conceived in the 1970s, during the Senate’s landmark hearings on American families. Acceptance of family policy as a field made little headway in the 1980s, in part because of divisive ideological debates that surfaced during the controversial 1980 White House Conference on Families. Despite these birth pains, family policy evolved into a legitimate field of empirical and theoretical inquiry during the 1990s (Bogenschneider, 2000, 2002; Ooms, 1995).

The 1990s began with the question of legitimacy: Are families a legitimate focus of policy attention and public investments, or are families a private matter? When the decade drew to a close, this question appeared to have been answered by the policy initiatives, political judgments, and priorities of the American people. Across the political spectrum, with important exceptions, a consensus emerged that government had a legitimate role in nurturing and protecting well-functioning families and that the private sector also had responsibilities.

During the 1990s, federal policy makers enacted an impressive range of innovative policies regarding adoption, child abuse, child care, child support, domestic violence, education, family leave, family preservation, family poverty, same-sex marriage, and welfare reform (Bogenschneider, 2000, 2002). Over two thirds (34) of the states funded programs for preschoolers, and about half funded programs for infants and toddlers (24) and parents (25) (Knitzer & Page, 1998). In addition, policies increasingly were examined in terms of their potential effects on family formation and stabilitythe marriage penalties built into certain tax policies (e.g., the earned income tax credit) being one example. Federal and state expenditures on child care tripled, direct cash benefits to families doubled, and family services saw a 50% increase (Kamerman & Kahn, 2001). In public opinion polls, these family policy initiatives and laws reflected the values and priorities of the American people. When asked how much government could be doing to help them, 47% of parents said that government could do a great deal to help them, and another 37% said that government could do something to help them (Hewlett & West, 1998).

The 1990s also saw an impressive number of private philanthropic commitments, some influencing the choice of issues for government actions and others exploring whether government actions achieved their family-focused goals. For example, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s commitment to family preservation (e.g., cautioning against the too-easy removal of children from families in which abuse or neglect is suspected or substantiated) subsequently was reflected in many state and federal policies (T. Ooms, personal communication, October 16, 1999).

Although no single formal decision was made, it was apparent that families had emerged as a legitimate focus of government policy in the 1990s. The shift was remarkable. A generation before, President Richard Nixon had vetoed a federal child care bill as an unwarranted governmental intrusion into a family concern. Child care now has become the largest single expenditure under the federal cash assistance program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Thirty years ago, the role of government in collecting child support was minimal; child support was deemed a private matter between the parties involved. Now both Democrats and Republicans readily agree to expansions of the public role in ensuring that child support is collected when children do not reside with both parents.

The question remains: Is this palpable shift toward a focus on the family permanent or merely a passing policy fad? Political observers claim that interest in family policy issues is now at its highest peak in 20 years (Hutchins, 1998; Ooms, 1990). Yet despite this popularity, the term family policy is still not widely used by policy makers, journalists, or the public. Moreover, few academics are actively engaged in the field in the sense that they explicitly structure their research agendas around family policy (Ooms, 2002). In fact, a review of the history of family policy from the early 20th century to the present warns against undue optimism. Historically, interest in family policy has ebbed and flowed; periods of interest and investment in family matters have been followed by periods of benign neglect. Families have often drawn considerable political attention, but arguably they have failed to secure a sustained niche in American public policy.

In this chapter, we examine three major efforts over the past century to establish family policy in the public arena and ask whether the themes and cycles of the past will dictate the future. Can analysis and understanding of the roots of American social policy inform political debate and shape a more enduring set of family policies in the 21st century? Like Robert Cairns, we believe that we are as much “determined by history as we are makers of it,” (quoted in Parke, 2003). The past may not be prologue. We are not necessarily doomed to repeated, short-term waves of interest in family policy, particularly if we can carefully draw insights from the history of family policies that might help us shape the direction and dissemination of our research, the design of our policies, and the operation of our institutions. To begin this look back in time, we clarify what we mean by the terms family policy and family.

Definitions of Family Policy and Family

This chapter defines family policy as the development, enactment, and implementation of laws, rules, codes, or judicial decisions in the public or private sector that address four family functions: (a) family creation (marriage and divorce, childbearing and adoption, the provision of foster care), (b) economic support, (c) child rearing, and (d) caregiving (e.g., provision of assistance to the ill, frail, and elderly) (see Bogenschneider, 2000, 2002; Consortium of Family Organizations, 1990; Ooms, 1990). Families also provide members with love and transmit cultural and religious values, but these intimate functions matter to social policy only when they interfere with the four main family functions (Ooms, 1990). This chapter does not address policies that fall outside this explicit definition, although we fully recognize that a wide range of issues may benefit from a family perspective in policy making that analyzes the consequences of any policy or program for its effect on family well-being.

In our work with policy makers, we seldom receive requests to define what we mean by family, which leads us to believe that the definition of family need not be a barrier to achieving progress as a field. In fact, we believe that no single definition of family may be possible. Existing definitions of family might be categorized in two ways: (a) structural definitions that specify family membership according to certain characteristics such as blood relationship, legal ties, or residence; and (b) functional definitions that specify behaviors that family members perform, such as sharing economic resources and caring for the young, elderly, sick, and disabled (see Bogenschneider, 2002; Moen & Schorr, 1987). Either a structural or a functional definition can be written to reinforce the intent of a specific program or policy (Eshleman, 1991). For example, if the issue were child support, a structural definition would require financial support only from those people related to the child by blood, marriage, or adoption, whereas a functional definition would require support from any committed caregiver. If the issue were care for the elderly, structuralists would provide benefits only to those who had legal responsibility for the dependent, whereas functionalists would include any close companion who provided care. When considered in the context of specific legislation, structural definitions seem more appropriate for some goals and functional definitions for others. We believe that definitions will vary over time, across jurisdictions, and in different political contexts.

Precedent exists for the lack of a single, preferred definition of family. No legal definition of family appears in the U.S. Constitution, the federal statutes or regulations (Ooms, 1998), or most state statutes (Bogenschneider, Young, Melli, & Fleming, 1993). Defining the family is not a matter that can be answered by research. Instead, it is a question of values and prioritiesthe types of decisions that policy makers are elected to make. For some, leaving the matter to policy makers may seem unsettling. Yet given the multiple goals of policies, it may be impossible to settle on a single definition that will suit all purposes, and a protracted debate over language and definition may impede progress toward more useful and pragmatic policy initiatives. Rather, it may be more prudent and productive to define families in ways that reinforce the intent of a specific policy or program (Moen & Schorr, 1987).

Whatever definition is used, the term family makes an important conceptual distinction by moving our attention beyond the individual to relationships among two or more persons tied together by blood, legal bonds, or the performance of family functions such as caregiving and economic support. This is a critical distinction that is too often overlooked in policy circles. For example, any children’s or women’s policy is often incorrectly equated with family policy, even when the target of interest is an individual, not a family relationship or family unit.

Using this distinction, we selected three examples that illustrate how family policies have waxed and waned over the century. Embedded in these scenarios are some of the origins of contemporary family policy: the activism of middle-class women between 1890 and 1920, the child- and family-saving movement from 1900 to 1930, and the Social Security Amendments of 1939. We extract from these examples six themes that may be instructive in designing more enduring family policies in the future.

The Origins of Family Policy in Women’s Advocacy, 1890-1920

The rapid industrialization, massive immigration, and urbanization of America in the 1880s and 1890s were accompanied by social conditions such as unemployment, low wages, homelessness, and poverty. A relatively unregulated workplace led to high rates of injuries and death (Sklar, 1993); and unhealthy living conditions, particularly in urban settings, contributed to high mortality rates among infants and children (Linden-meyer, 1997). In 1890, 9% of children lived with one parent, and most of these single parents were widowed mothers (Gordon, 1994). Single mothers who lost a breadwinning husband were typically thrust into dire economic need (Skocpol, 1997). In the first decade of the 1900s, when a living wage was $8 per week, single mothers could earn about $2 to $4 per week. To earn enough to afford food and housing, children without fathers were more than six times more likely to be pressed into the workforce (33%) as children with fathers (6%). The impulse of early reformers was to separate highly vulnerable children from their impoverished families and place them in what they considered more suitable family situations or institutions. In fact, the primary reason for institutionalizing children, in one Massachusetts study, was the inability of mothers to support them. By the end of the 19th century, single mothers and their children were perceived to be a social problem of such magnitude that they needed public attention (Gordon, 1994).

To an extent unparalleled anywhere else in the world, government’s response to the problems of working-class mothers and children was shaped by American women reformers, particularly middle-class women. The agenda of these women activists extended beyond motherhood to the workplace. Nowhere else in the world did protective labor legislation focus so directly on women, and nowhere else were women so involved in its enactment. The success of these women’s groups in restructuring America’s social and political priorities at the local, state, and federal levels can be attributed to their success in mobilizing grassroots, class-bridging coalitions that lobbied for benefits for working-class mothers and childrenmany of whom were unable to lobby on their own behalf (Sklar, 1993).

By 1890, about 56,000 women were pursuing a college education, and in lieu of graduate school many leaders of the social reform movement chose to live and work in settlement homes in working-class immigrant neighborhoods. These settings provided a venue for collecting data and experimenting with the design and implementation of welfare programs and policies (Koven & Michel, 1993; Sklar, 1993). This knowledge and skill was subsequently put to use in the nation’s women’s clubs (Sklar, 1993). In the last quarter of the 19th century, literally hundreds of local women’s organizations formed national associations (Koven & Michel, 1993), including the Congress of Mothers, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the National Council of Catholic Women, the National Consumers’ League, the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Women’s Trade Union League, and the Young Women’s Christian Association (Sklar, 1993).

The most important woman’s organization, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WTCU), was formed in 1875 as an umbrella organization with 39 departments, 25 of which did not deal with temperance. In Chicago, the WTCU maintained two nurseries, an industrial school, a mission, a medical dispensary, and a lodging house for men. In 1890, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs pulled together a vast number of local networks that addressed a range of topics. For example, in 1893, the federation resolved that each club should appoint a standing committee to inquire into the labor conditions of women and children and another committee to investigate state labor laws. By 1919, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs represented an impressive grassroots network of 800,000 women (Sklar, 1993).

During the peak of American industrialization between 1900 and 1920, these middle-class women’s organizations worked in collaboration with male professionals to pass an array of social policies to protect current and future mothers and their children that men had been unable to enact on their owncampaigns for compulsory education, protective labor legislation for women, and child labor (Sklar, 1993). Most of these campaigns were family policy in the truest sense because they focused, not only on the child or the woman, but on the state’s interest in preserving the family (Gordon, 1994) and on the parents’, usually the mother’s, responsibility for the child. The most important of the issues they addressed were compulsory school attendance (passed by every state by 1918), mothers’ pensions to support impoverished widows (enacted by 44 states), limits to the hours that women wage earners could work (46 states), and minimum wages for women workers (15 states). Curiously, during the same time period in which these laws were passed to protect women and mothers, proposed benefits and regulations for male workers often were defeated (Skocpol, 1995). Later, these policies for women workers were extended to wage-earning men and non-wage-earning women and children (Sklar, 1993).

These Progressive-minded women activists challenged the rigid determinism of Social Darwinism by working to change the social conditions in which families operated (Gordon, 1994). Experts contributed to these early reform campaigns with studies and reports that exposed social problems (Smith, 1991). For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics published 19 volumes on their investigation of the predicaments faced by many women and child wage earners (Lindenmeyer, 1997). In addition, the writing of Samuel McCune Lindsay and G. Stanley Hall in the early 1900s helped establish childhood and adolescence as unique periods of development that deserved special attention.

Quite remarkably, this political activism at the turn of the century occurred at a time when a woman’s sphere of influence was almost universally accepted as the home and a full two decades before women had the right to vote. The lexicon of these early reformers helped legitimize women’s involvement in policy making by domesticating politics. For example, in the words of Frances Willard, “[G]overnment was only housekeeping on the broadest scale,” and according to Ellen Swallow Richards, women could move into the larger world and “clean it up, as if it were no more than a dirty house” (both cited in Stage, 1997, pp. 28, 30). Historians have noted, however, that this movement was not entirely altruistic in that it created new jobs and positions of power for women and tended to advance white, middle-class notions of women and child rearing. It operated primarily in the North and mostly separately from the activism of black women (Sklar, 1993).

The commitment of these women’s organizations to grassroots organization and social reform waned in the 1920s. Professions like home economics and social work lost their spirit of systemic social change and focused more on skill building, individual pathologies, and therapeutic treatment modalities. This narrowing of professional mission reflected larger societal trends a shift toward greater individualism following World War I; the Hoover era’s emphasis on individuals, standards, and profitability; a backlash against women’s reform efforts outside the home; the end of the Progressive Era; and the rise of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management theories (Stage, 1997).

The Origins of Family Policy as “Child and Family Saving,” 1900-1930

Children slowly became more prominent as a distinct population of social policy interest over the last half of the 19th century. Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. president from 1901 to 1909, poured over turn-of-the-century census data, which he thought signaled family decline. Between 1890 and 1910, the number of Americans who divorced tripled. Between 1880 and 1920, the U.S. birthrate fell by over 30%. Because immigration rates were high, this led to concerns, particularly in some geographic regions, over the decline in the proportion of native stock. In 1918, the infant mortality rate was double that of western Europe, 80% of pregnant mothers did not receive prenatal care, and 23,000 mothers died in childbirth (Carlson, 2002a). Given these trends, Trattner (1999) noted that a focus on children and family once again became paramount to many social reformers of the time:

The fate of the world is determined by the influences which prevail with the child from birth to 7 years of age … All the problems go back to the childcorrupt politics, dishonesty and greed in commerce, war, anarchism, drunkenness, incompetence. (p. 109)

The establishment of the Children’s Bureau is often regarded as the first political victory in a series of family- and child-saving policies. In the words of Florence Kelley, feminist social reformer and a founder of Hull House in 1903, “If the government can have a department to take such a interest in the cotton crop, why can’t it have a bureau to look after the nation’s child crop?” (Carlson 2002a, p. 15). The U.S. Children’s Bureau was established 9 years later with support from a number of women’s associations. Julia Lathrop, its first director, was also the first woman to head a federal agency, albeit one with a small budget of $25,640 and a staff of only 15. To advance the bureau’s agenda, Lathrop mobilized thousands of volunteers in Settlement Houses and women’s clubs (Carlson, 2002a).

Building on the Progressive Era’s faith in research and education, the Children’s Bureau organized a grassroots movement to save babies through better mothering and family life (Ladd-Taylor, 1993). The Children’s Bureau published books, organized 50,000 girls in 44 cities into Little Mother Leagues, elevated Mother’s Day to a national holiday, and spearheaded a National Baby Week. In 1917, with war looming on the horizon, Lathrop helped develop an innovative compensation plan designed to maintain decent living standards for families. Half of the wages of soldiers and sailors were paid directly to their wives and children, and a family allowance was provided on a sliding scale of up to $50 per month for families with four or more children. Death and disability benefits were also provided for widows and children (Carlson, 2002b). Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the Children’s Bureau was the passage of the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Act.

The American Medical Association fiercely opposed the bill as “German paternalism” and “sob stuff.” However, women’s organizations … actively sought its passage, forming “one of the strongest lobbies that has ever been seen in Washington.” When a powerful Congressman blocked the measure in a House Committee, Florence Kelley appeared before its members and compared Congress to King Herod and the slaughter of the innocents, asking: “Why does Congress wish women and children to die?” (quoted in Carlson, 2002a, p. 17)

The Democratic, Socialist, Prohibition, and Farmer-Labor Parties endorsed the act, as did Republican presidential candidate, Warren Harding. The Sheppard-Towner Act won an easy victory, in part, because Congress was nervous about facing newly enfranchised women voters for the first time (Ladd-Taylor, 1993).

Eventually 45 of 48 states participated in the program (Carlson, 2002a). During its 7 years of operation, the bureau distributed 22 million pieces of literature, held 183,000 health conferences, established 3,000 prenatal centers, and visited 3 million homes. By 1929, the bureau estimated that its child-rearing information had benefited half of U.S. babies. Moreover, the Children’s Bureau was the federal leader in statistics, providing most Depression Era poverty data and serving as a primary consultant for the establishment of the Bureau of Labor Standards. Job applicants to the Children’s Bureau had to be able to design a study of a major social problem and create a table from raw statistical data (Gordon, 1992).

Yet even though the Sheppard-Towner program remained broadly popular with American women and retained most of its political support from women’s groups, it was vigorously opposed by the male physicians and bureaucrats who had come to dominate children’s health policy (Ladd-Taylor, 1993). Congress never made the program permanent, and it was unable to secure access to stable funding, as Social Security had done via the trust fund. The program was killed through legislative maneuvers in 1929.

The Origins of Family Policy in the Social Security Amendments of 1939

Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency in the midst of an economic depression that followed closely on the heels of the stock market crash of 1929. In March 1933, one third of the U.S. labor force was out of work. Between 1928 and 1932, when Hoover was president, rates of birth and marriage each declined about 20%. These work and family trends led to starkly different interpretations by the two prominent ideologies of the time: the Hoover technocrats and the American Maternalists of the 1920s.

In 1930, Herbert Hoover appointed a number of distinguished social scientists, referred to as Hoover technocrats, to the President’s Research Committee on Social Trends. According to their report, released in 1933, falling birthrates were evidence of the failing of the family, particularly the housewife, who arguably could contribute more by entering the labor force. The report claimed that most family functionscare of the elderly, child care, cooking, education, health care, laundering, religious acts, and sewing could be better and more efficiently carried out by experts in corporate, state, or charitable bodies that were organized according to industry guidelines. As summarized by Carlson (2002b):

The frail nature of the family meant that “schools, nurseries or other agencies” would need to enroll a “larger proportion of the very young children in the future” so as “to conserve childhood in the midst of rapidly shifting conditions of family life.” Only “society” has the new expertise needed to grapple with “developing the personality of its children.” … Concern should no longer focus on family strength. … Instead, attention should be on “the individualization of the members of the family.” (p. 4)

These views, which were endorsed by business leaders, were perceived as an attack on family life by the Maternalistsa motherhood movement with roots dating back to the Settlement House movement. Maternalists believed that the ideal family the breadwinning father, mother at home, and their childrenwas being threatened by industrialization. The cornerstone of the Maternalists’ policy agenda was a family wagea living wage for the father so that the mother could stay home to raise the children (Carlson, 2002b). This Maternalist defense of the value of women’s traditional labor against the forces of industrialization under-girded the New Deal domestic policies of the Roosevelt administration and continues to shape the American welfare state to this day.

The New Deal has been criticized by feminists as creating female dependency through patriarchal policies, a debate that extends beyond the purposes of this chapter. The New Deal did come to reflect the Maternalist perspective on social policy a perspective consistent with views of the family that were widely accepted at the time. When asked in a 1936 Gallup poll if wives should work when their husbands had jobs, a resounding 82% said no, leading George Gallup to contend that this issue was one that voters were “about as solidly united as on any subject imaginable including sin and hay fever” (quoted in Carlson, 2002b, p. 6). Even unmarried women reformers of the day, Gordon (1992) noted, “did not… contradict the prevailing premises that children and women needed breadwinner husbands, that children needed full-time mothers, that women should choose between family and career” (p. 34).

We will consider here how these Maternalist views of the family shaped only one New Deal policy, the Social Security Act of 1935, which is considered the foundation of U.S. public social programs to this day and the origin of one of the country’s most effective antipoverty policies. In the original act, Old Age pensions were funded by contributions to individual accounts. With overwhelming political support, the Social Security Act was amended in 1939 to add survivor and dependent benefits.

Old Age pensions were thus transformed from a program for an individual worker to a social insurance program for the entire family unit. Widowed mothers received 75% of the pension their husbands would have received, as long as they did not remarry or earn more than $15 per month. Surviving children received half of the benefit their fathers would have received. An aged woman who had been married for at least 5 years and was not divorced was eligible for 50% of the pension her husband would have received, whether or not she herself had a work history. Thus, the 1939 Social Security Amendments established the American welfare system on the family wage, marriage, and a nonemployed mother at home. Those who deviated from these family norms through divorce, deliberate childlessness, illegitimacy, or maternal employment incurred financial penalties (see Carlson, 2002b).

The New Deal is one example of how an individualistic society appears to justify social programs by explicitly acknowledging recipients’ service to the nationfor example, rewarding mothers for bearing and rearing children. The legislation was based on the premise that mothers deserved to be honorably supported if a breadwinning husband was not available (Skocpol, 1995). In the words of Molly Dewson, who served on the Social Security Board: [When] you begin to help the family to attain some security you are at the same time beginning to erect a National structure for the same purpose. Through the well-being of the family, we create the well-being of The Nation. Through our constructive contributions to the one, we help the other to flourish. (quoted in Carlson, 2002b, p. 10)

Experts played a new, more active role in the design of the New Deal. Roosevelt attracted hordes of intellectuals to Washington by establishing various advisory and planning agencies, including his legendary Brain Trust.

He also reorganized the Executive Office in the late 1930s in ways that ensured that his successors would have access to intellectual resources. By 1938, when most of the New Deal programs were in place, more than 7,800 social scientists were working in the federal government.

Implications for Building Enduring Family Policies

Over time, demographics (concerns about family decline), economics (the Great Depression), intellectual fads (Social Darwinism), and advocacy (particularly by women’s organizations) played key roles in how social policy and family issues were framed and deliberated. National policy in the United States has always been cyclical in character. For example, it has cycled between individual and structural explanations for social problems, whether policy should be protective of or mainstream women and children, and whether government policies should be proactive or remedies of last resort. Political pushes to strengthen families and use them as instruments of social change have often been followed by periods of neglect when the family was viewed as the exclusive province of the principals themselves. Consequently, it proved challenging to sustain the promise of an activist family policy perspective over the course of the 20th century.

Some challenges to a sustained family policy perspective may well persist. Yet we think that family professionals must deconstruct the repeated rise and fall of family policies over the past century to identify circumstances that hold the promise of bringing family policy into the mainstream of social policy debate so that it has a status commensurate with that of economic policy or poverty policy. Indeed, the similarities between the development of poverty policy and family policy as legitimate fields of study are illuminating.

As a distinct area of inquiry, poverty research and analysis is typically dated back to the early 1960s, when a definition of poverty was developed at the Social Security Administration and public policy was directed to this societal challenge by President Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty. By the late 1960s, one litmus test for policy proposals was “What does it do for the poor?” Although concern for the poor can be traced back to the emergence of civilization itself, and although poverty research, as we now know it, was being practiced as early as the late 19th century, the pace and sophistication of research did not pick up until a distinct field of inquiry developed. Today, our understanding of poverty is immeasurably more advanced and nuanced than it was 40 years ago.

Family policy is in much the same condition that poverty policy was in the 1960s. There is a good deal of it going on, but ways of distilling and translating the work to shape and inform policy have yet to be fully exploited. We still need a generally accepted definition of the concept. We need a policy arena that continues to accept families as a legitimate subject of public discourse. This will require more than wishful thinking and good intentions. We need to reflect on the history of family policy and learn from the past how to fashion a better future. In this final section, we offer six precepts on which family professionals can build so that family policy may be more firmly established as a field and an enduring set of family policies can be constructed for the new century.

Family Policies Move Forward when Legitimated by Relevant Research and Theory

One impetus for the development and enactment of family policy in the past was clear data that family structure was changing in deleterious ways, some evidence that family integrity was being compromised, and a theoretical rationale for understanding the consequences of these changes for society. For example, family policies were enacted early in the 20th century when Progressive reformers were able to document trends that high numbers of women were dying in childbirth, infant mortality rates far exceeded those of other industrialized nations, and incidences of child labor were escalating. Child labor reformers were able to justify their advocacy, in part, by drawing on theories that conceptualized childhood and adolescence as distinct periods of development that warranted special protections. New Deal legislation emerged when one third of Americans were unemployed, with obvious repercussions for family stability and well-being.

What this means for today’s family professional is that good data can help policy makers determine whether social action is needed, either by identifying problems or by refuting contentions that problems exist (Bogenschneider, 2002). Moynihan’s (1941) claim, stated more than 60 years ago, that data may be more important for family policy than for other aspects of social policy still holds true: “Family matters, in other words, are not a subject for which there is a well-established alarm system that alerts the larger society to dangers as they arise. Something truly alarming has to happen” (pp. xii-xiii).

Moynihan’s words capture an important, often misunderstood, element of policy making that data are more apt to evoke public interest and a political response when they point out potential risks or a pending crisis. Rightly or wrongly, policy makers tend to deal with outliers, such as child-abusing parents, crime-committing youth, or students that need special education. Data are more apt to be policy relevant when they spotlight risks to the individual and, perhaps more importantly, the prevalence of these risks in the population (Scott, Mason, & Chapman, 1999). For example, the increased risk of mental retardation is similar for individuals born premature or postmature (88% and 81% respectively). Yet premature births have a greater impact on society than post-mature births because they are five times more common. If problems are known to pose substantial risk to a significant segment of the population, research findings can stimulate public outrage and catapult issues onto the political agenda.

For family policy purposes, however, research also needs to move beyond examination of the risks to and outcomes for the individual a focus that is so pervasive in our culture and in our research methods that it almost goes unnoticed. There is no better illustration of this bias than the effort in the 1990s to develop social indicators of societal well-being. Several federal executive agencies, with substantial input from the academic community, supported a concerted effort to identify key indicators by which to assess how well we were doing as a society and to help guide and shape future policy development and social investments.

Looking back, it is curious that there was so little debate about the underlying basis for organizing the social indicator initiative. By default, the organizing principle ended up being children, not the families in which the children resided. Arguably, the major intellectual work to come out of this effort was titled Indicators of Children’s Well-Being, even though many of the indicators discussed were based on the family concept (Hauser, Brown, & Prosser, 1997). Moreover, a 1997 Executive Order established the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics to publish a set of national statistics from 18 federal agencies on the health of families. The resulting annual publication conspicuously left the word family out of the title: Trends in the Well-Being of America’s Children and Youth (Westat, 2000).

This omission may be attributable, in part, to the individualistic focus of data collection. Employment statistics make no distinction between an unemployed father of nine, a teenager looking for a part-time job, and a senior citizen supplementing pension and Social Security incomes (Moynihan, 1986). When researchers document the increasing number of Americans working long hours, are they careful to point out whether these long hours occur in families raising children and whether one or both parents are working overtime? Only when data analysts, program designers and evaluators deliberately examine the family’s role in social problems will results emerge like those in recent interventions to prevent youth crime and substance use that interventions are cost effective only when they emphasize training of parents and avoid bringing together highrisk youth, no matter how skillfully (Dishion, McCord, & Poulin, 1999). Collecting family data, developing family theory, and designing family programs is no simple task, according to Ooms (2002): “Families are not easy units of analysis; they are complex, dynamic, messy, ever-changing systems. A family orientation requires us to think about individuals and families in a comprehensive way and to design holistic responses for meeting their needs” (p. xiii).

The Family Perspective is Influential When Relevant Research and Theory are Communicated to Policy Makers

For example, Theodore Roosevelt, who has been called the first American president to philosophically describe the importance of family life to the nation, was influenced to a large extent by census data that, he believed, spelled out a crisis in family life (Carlson, 2001). The Children’s Bureau was a pioneer in collecting quantitative data about the need for and effectiveness of its programs and in translating the numbers for public consumption. Moreover, a number of family policies were triggered, in part, by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ investigations of the predicaments faced by women and child wage earners. Conversely, research and theory can also impede progress, as evidenced by the efficiency-based tenets of Taylor’s scientific management theory and the individualistic, industry-driven recommendations of Hoover’s panel of social science technocrats. Extrapolating from the past, social scientists can no longer trust that good research and theory will somehow find their way into the policy-making process (Rist, 1994). We need to devote as much energy and as many resources to developing practices and procedures for disseminating rigorous analysis into the policy-making process as we have devoted to generating high-quality research and publishing it in the leading journals. A three-pronged approach is needed: (a) directing more attention to the science of translation and to ways that information can be packaged to meet policy makers’ unique information needs, (b) encouraging a family impact perspective in policy making, whereby policy makers consider the effects of policies on families as well as the potential benefit of taking the role of families into account, and (c) taking systematic steps inside the academy to encourage and reward efforts to connect research to policy making outside the academy.

We are familiar with two promising models: the Family Impact Seminars and the Welfare Peer Assistance Network (WELPAN). The Family Impact Seminars are a series of seminars, briefing reports, newsletters, and discussion sessions that provide state policy makers with nonpartisan, solution-oriented information on current issues that affect families, like child care, juvenile crime, and welfare reform (see Bogenschneider, 2002; Bogenschneider, Olson, Linney, & Mills, 2000). Policy makers report that the seminars have increased their knowledge of research on family issues in ways that are useful in decision making and that have shaped the development and enactment of public policies. What’s more, we have been able to substantiate that, because of the legislators’ participation in the seminars, they are more apt to see the practical value of research and to consider how pending legislation affects families.

WELPAN regularly brings together state-level welfare officials for discussion about common problems and solutions and for exchange of views with researchers and policy makers (see Corbett et al., 1998). From this dialogue have emerged some common solutions to shared problems as well as new insights that might not have been apparent without the dialogue. For example, in several reports, WELPAN members have identified and supported a shift in the direction of welfare policies toward family promotion and stability purposes (WELPAN, 2002).

Family Policies Move Forward when Policy Makers and the Public Support Structural Rather than Individual Explanations for Social Problems

Throughout the nation’s history, we have wavered between structural and individual explanations for social problems. The examples in this chapter suggest that family policies were more likely to have been enacted when more comprehensive structural explanations for social problems were in vogue. For example, it was hard to blame the high rates of infant mortality on individuals when they affected the rich and poor alike. The death of male breadwinners was difficult to attribute to individual choice and behavior. When one third of the nation’s workers were unemployed, it was hard to imagine that so many were unwilling or unable to work.

Whether political candidates use individual or structural explanation does not always depend on their political party or the constituency they represent (Ross & Staines, 1972). For example, the Sheppard-Towner Act was passed when Republican Warren Harding was elected president, and the New Deal was enacted when Democrat Franklin Roosevelt assumed the presidency. Structural explanations for social problems seemed more apt to emerge during political campaigns and at the time of a change in administration. Challenges for political office tend to have a vested interest in structural or systemic explanations of social problems that point out the inadequacies of the current officeholders. In contrast, it is typically more politically expedient for incumbents to defend the system by arguing that their administration has contributed to a good quality of life with few problems. Any problems that are difficult to deny are attributed, not to the administration, but rather to the actions of certain individuals or groups.

Beyond political considerations, research can often bring about change by determining whether social problems are driven more by structural or individual factors. For example, at the turn of the century, data collected in the Settlement Houses demonstrated the feasibility of government intervention on behalf of families. Public opinion polls in the 1930s demonstrated widespread support for the family focus of the New Deal legislation. Historically, debates about particular public policies have been linked, not only to public perceptions about what government should do, but also to beliefs about how effective government intervention can be (Skocpol, 1995). Thus, research is policy relevant when it identifies the success of prior programs or policies that address family factors, the receptivity of the public or affected organizations to family-oriented political responses (Rist, 1994), and the probable consequences of familistic versus individualistic policy interventions (see Dishion et al., 1999).

Family Policy Moves Forward when there is a Broad Interdisciplinary Focus on Families

Between 1900 and 1920, female middle-class activists adopted a comprehensive agenda that included compulsory education, child labor, and protective labor legislation for women. The Sheppard-Towner Law of 1921 encompassed activities ranging from parent education and home visits to prenatal centers and health conferences. By including the terms survivor and dependent, the 1939 Social Security Amendments explicitly transformed the American welfare state from a system that focused narrowly on the individual to one that incorporated the individual’s most important context, the family.

By its very nature, a family focus leads policy makers toward an integrative perspective. How do diverse policies and systems interact with complex family dynamics to affect families? One recent example is the refocusing of welfare policy on behavior and community rather than on merely handing out checks. This has prompted many policy analysts to think more broadly rather than merely zeroing in on specific problems and service strategies; we now think about how families function overall rather than focus on specific issues such as lack of child care or Food Stamps. What does it take to change fundamental behaviors such as work, fertility, parenting, or family formation? Focusing on the family with its complex set of individual needs and relationships pushes thinking outside the box where the interactions among issues and systems become more apparent. A family focus demands a sophisticated, cross-disciplinary approach to policy challenges.

But think for a moment about how we typically organize our policy and analytic spheres. The policy world is structured into what we might call program and system arenas. Narrowly targeted programs have separate funding streams and program requirements. Legislative committees are organized and segregated around relatively narrow jurisdictions, and most executive departments are equally specialized. Similarly, the academic world is divided into disciplines and subdisciplines; synthesis and interdisciplinary work remain the exception. The field of evaluation is expert driven and dominated by experimental methods, which are most powerful for examining narrowly defined programs and policies. In a time of shrinking portfolios, the philanthropic community is targeting its resources to increasingly narrow and specific priorities.

If family policy is to become more than kissing babies (Jacobs & Davies, 1994), we must restructure how we organize our policy and intellectual worldsbreak down program arenas, reorganize legislatures and executive agency expertise, transform academic reward systems, make some fundamental changes in how we evaluate policies, and encourage funding priorities to move toward a more holistic emphasis on the family system. A real focus on family policy also demands rethinking how we train professionals and how our institutions do business. Ooms (2002) has aptly asked:

Why are there only a handful of family policy courses taught in family life departments and social work schools, and even fewer in public policy schools? When increasing numbers of policy researchers in the major think tanks are working on specific family issues, why are there no units within these institutions established to encourage and pursue family policy as an organizing theme? Why are there still no groups within government agencies dedicated to examining the impact of their policies on families? (p. xii)

Family Policy Moves Forward when there are Formal Structures in Place

The Children’s Bureau and Roosevelt’s Brain Trust are prime examples of formal policy structures. Over 50 years ago, the Council of Economic Advisers and the Joint Economic Committee were established to help the nation set and reach its economic goals. No such entity exists with sole responsibility for families. This is unfortunate given that leaders today, according to Smith (1991), are far more dependent on their immediate counselors and bureaucratic experts. Such a council could give the family visibility, access to the key levers of power, a forum around which to bring together diverse and separate public entities working on relevant family issues, a locus for integrating policy- and family-relevant research, and a central agenda-setting body for developing a plan of action and assigning responsibility. Would a Council on Families have any real power and influence, or would it be a small cog in a big bureaucracy? A Council on Families could wield power, according to Moynihan (1986), who argued that the 1946 Employment Act, which established the Council of Economic Advisers, may have been more important than any jobs bill:

The mere declaration of policy was an event; it marked acceptance of a social responsibility … The point was not what answers were provided, but what questions were posed … It would be enough for a national family policy to declare that the American government would be formulated and administered with this object in mind; and finally that the President, or some person designated by him, would report to the Congress on the condition of the American family in all its many facets. (pp. 10-11)

Family Policy Moves Forward when there is Broad-Based Citizen Activism

In the early years of the Progressive Era, “social policyformerly the province of women’s voluntary work became public policy” (Barker, quoted in Stage, 1997, p. 18). Women’s advocacy for labor legislation between 1890 and 1920 helped establish the constitutionality of government interventions on behalf of working families (Sklar, 1993). Julia Lathrop’s success in the political arena can be attributed to the endorsements that she solicited from liberal and conservative organizations like the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the National Congress of Mothers, which later became the Parent Teacher Association (Skocpol, 1995, 1997). According to Skocpol (1995), successful U.S. social programs tend to emerge from partnerships between government and voluntary organizations, typically those organized at the local, state, and national levels. Considerable leverage can be exerted by organizations that can coordinate concerted political pressure across legislative districts.

In the United States, most organizations that include families in their advocacy promote an agenda with a particular political cast. Is it Pollyannaish to think that liberal and conservative advocacy groups would ever join forces for the ultimate good of the whole family unit? Could advocates from any political persuasion rally around a fundamental first stepencouraging policy makers to routinely ask, “How would this policy or program affect families?” Family issues, because of their fundamental importance, have a unique capacity to generate unexpected alliances that mirror the inherent give and take of family life (Bogenschneider, 2002).


Families have always played an important role in public policy deliberations in the United States, but one that has not always been explicit and fully acknowledged. Family-centered policy making has enjoyed periods of robust support followed by years of benign neglect. The reasons for our ambivalence toward families in public policy probably can be inferred. Children are politically safe; they do not bear responsibility for their circumstances, at least during their early years. In contrast, the adult members of families are held responsible and sometimes judged harshly. This line of reasoning tends to draw our attention to selected individual targets, leading to fractured and disconnected policies that fail to appreciate the all-important interactions among family members. This individualistic focus has also undercut political support for family policies because of voters’ apprehension that programs for children are merely disguised welfare programs (Skocpol, 1995).

If we want the current period of interest in the family and its primary role in ensuring social well-being to endure, we should look to earlier periods in which activist social policies drew upon the family as both a focus of attention and a source of inspiration. The vacillation between family policy feast and famine of the past may not be prologue if we draw upon these lessons from earlier periods of the nation’s history as guidelines for the future. Professionals can build more enduring family policies in the 21st century by conducting research that is more policy and family relevant and communicating its findings to policy makers in ways that will entice them to be more research sensitive. Professionals can conduct studies, design theories, and develop programs that deliberately include structural and family factors and encourage political participation, especially when such factors are in vogue. Family professionals can encourage a broad, interdisciplinary focus on families through top-down approaches like developing formal structures to elevate the status of families in policy making and by bottom-up approaches that encourage broad-based citizen support and activism.

It takes only a moment’s reflection to realize that policy makers do not have a choice about whether to affect family life; they already do through their action and also their inaction. This chapter identifies several steps that professionals can take to elicit policy decisions that are more informed, deliberate, and self-conscious about their impact on families. We believe that the potential exists to build a set of family policies in the 21st century that are more explicit, expected, and enduring.