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Families and social policyFamilies and social policy
• Topic learning objectives
• When you have studied this topic, you
– Know some of the ways in which social
policies may affect the family.
– Understand the different sociological
perspectives on families and social policy.
– Be able to analyse these perspectives and
evaluate their usefulness in understanding the
relationship between families and social policy
A comparative view of family policyA comparative view of family policy
• Policies = measures taken by public bodies, e.g.
schools, NHS, benefits system – usually based
on laws introduced by government.
• The UK Government often makes laws that are
designed to influence family life or structure.
• These laws are part of social policy.
• Social policy laws covers areas such as
divorce, changes to the benefit system which
affect family income, reforms to the education
system, adoption/fostering and employment.
Changes in family structureChanges in family structure
• Cross cultural examples from different societies
and historical periods confirm and highlight the
extreme ways in which state policies can affect
• Abolishing the family – in the Soviet Union after
the 1917 Russian Revolution they attempted to
destroy the family structure which was seen as
• In the 1920s the Soviet Government
– Made divorce and abortion easier to attain.
Abolishing the familyAbolishing the family
– Guaranteed equality between the sexes
– Women entered paid employment on a vast
– The state began to provide workplace and
other communal nurseries
– It was felt that the traditional family would
– However the difficulties the Soviet Union
encountered e.g. threat of war with Nazi
Germany meant a change of policy
China’s one-child policyChina’s one-child policy
• Some laws/policies affect family directly, e.g.
China; government discourages having more than
one child – gives extra tax allowances, free health
• Women pressurised to be sterilised after first child.
• Wilson (1985) notes the policy is supervised by
workplace planning committees; women must seek
permission to try and get pregnant and there is
both a waiting list and a quota for each factory.
• Those who break the agreement must pay a fine.
Social policy has changed over time• The way governments tackle social policy has changed
substantially since the Second World War.
• In the 1945-1979 period the state’s social policy was rather
• The Welfare State which was set up by a Labour
government in 1948, supported families through benefits,
public housing, family allowance and free health care.
• People paid into a national insurance scheme to pay for the
welfare state. It was universal – everyone had the same
benefits and services.
• Many NR believe that policies in the ’60s
& ‘70s was an attack on family values e.g.
Legalisation of abortion.
Views on policy
• Different perspectives have different views on
role/effects of policy.
• Functionalism – functionalists see society as built on
harmony and consensus (shared values and value
• The state acts in the interests of the whole society –
policies benefit all, help families perform functions.
• Fletcher (1966) argues the introduction of welfare state
led to policies to support family, e.g. NHS, doctors,
hospitals, etc. – helps family care for members.
Criticisms of functionalist views
• Complete the questions on page 82.
• Functionalists assume policies benefit all
• However, feminists suggest policies benefit
men, not women.
• Assumes ‘march of progress’ – policies
improving family life. But can make things
worse, e.g. cutting benefits to poor.
New Right (NR)
• NR = Conservative ideology: influence social policy.
• Traditional family = ‘natural’, with biological division of
labour; male breadwinner/female nurturer.
• So long as parents perform these roles, family will be
self-reliant/able to care for members.
• NR criticise welfare policies for undermining family’s self-
reliance by providing generous benefits, e.g. to lone
parent families (LPFs) ‘dependency culture’:
individuals depend on state to support families
• Murray argues that benefits are ‘perverse incentives’
rewarding irresponsible behaviour,
• E.g. if state maintains children, some fathers abandon
• Result more LPFs no role models/authority figure for
boys and delinquency.
• NR Solution to cut welfare spending give fathers more
incentive to work and provide for families.
Criticism of NR & New Labour
• NR views on the family reflect ‘familial ideology’
• Functionalists state policies can benefit family.
• NR less families on state benefit, the better.
• Criticism of NR view
– Feminist NR = attempt to justify a return to patriarchal
family that oppresses women.
– Patriarchal family not ‘natural’, but socially
– Cutting benefits poor families poorer still.
1979 Conservative Government
believed in reduced state intervention
• In 1979 the conservative party was elected with
Margaret Thatcher as their leader.
• Reacting to several years of political instability, they set
about reforming the relationship between society and the
• The Conservatives were influence by NR ideology.
• They believed that nuclear families were the cornerstone
of society, but also thought that society as a whole
should be freed from interference by state as much as
• They thought the UK had become a “nanny
state” with too much government control over
• They set out to make individuals more
responsible for their own lives and decisions –
the state would intervene much less in private
• So benefits were cut and taxes lowered.
• Means testing was introduced for some benefits
with the aim of helping only those in genuine
• Means testing – refers to when you only get
benefits if your household income is below a
certain level. E.g family tax credit.
• Mothers were encouraged to stay at home
through preferential tax allowances. Families
were pushed to take on more responsibility for
the elderly through benefit cuts. (Allan 1985)
• Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservatives echoed the
concerns of Charles Murray, who first coined the
phrase ‘culture of dependency’.
The Conservatives legislated to protect
people in a traditional family.
• The Conservatives valued traditional, nuclear
• In 1988, Thatcher described the family as “the
building block of society. It’s a nursery, a
school, a hospital, a leisure place of refuge and
a place of rest.”
• The Conservatives created several laws that
enforced the rights and responsibilities of
individuals in family.
Rights and responsibilities of
individuals in family.
1. The Child Support Agency was established
in 1993 to force absent fathers and mothers to
pay a fair amount towards the upkeep of their
2. The Children’s Act 1989 outlined for the first
time the rights of the child.
3. The Conservative also considered a law to
make divorce more difficult The Family Law
Act of 1996– a compulsory cooling off period
of one year was proposed before a couple
could divorce. In the end they abandoned this
idea because they couldn’t find a way to make
it work in practice.
Criticisms of New Right and
• Until 1997 state policy was about ensuring that the family
unit did not overwhelm the rights of the individual.
• Legislation focused on improving the social and
economic position of women, e.g. in 1991 the
Conservative government made marital rape illegal.
• Children’s rights were improved through successive
Children’s act (e.g. 1989), many suggest these policies
served to strengthen the family.
New Labour (NL) promised a
compromise between the old ideologies
• New Labour came to power in 1997 led by Tony Blair.
1. They based their ideology on ‘The Third Way’ – a
middle ground between left wing and right-wing
• Their policies were destined to be more pragmatic and
less ideological than either the 1979 Conservative
government or previous Labour government.
2. In their 1998 consultation paper ‘Supporting
Families’, they made it clear that marriage is their
preferred basis for family life (children)
• There more positive policies can improve family life,
– Extra benefit for poor families. (family tax credit)
• However, they have shown an awareness of, and a
concern for, diversity of family life.
• Lewis (2007) notes that in the UK there was no ‘explicit’
family policy. Until 2003 and 2007 when they appointed
a minister for Children and a new department for
Children, Schools and Families respectively.
• In 2005 they introduced civil partnerships, a union a lot
like marriage that is available to gay couples.
• They’ve also introduced laws allowing any type of
cohabiting couple to adopt children.
• They have adopted some New Right ideas when it
comes to family policy- e.g. they have cut lone parent
benefit, supported means-tested benefits and are
opposed to universal benefits. (child benefit)
• NL like the NR supports the traditional family as
usually the best place to bring up children.
– Labour’s New Deal are designed to help people find
– Since April 2001, all lone mothers are required to
attend annual interviews about job opportunities.
– The working families tax credit has been introduced
for parents moving from incomes support to low-paid
– EMA has been introduced for those who remain in education
after 16 and who parents earn Less than £30,000
– Sure Start programme provides health and support
– services for low-income families with
– young children.
Feminist believe that social policy is
designed to patriarchy
1. Feminists believe that the NR want to reinforce a
sexist and exploitative model of the family by keeping
women in the home and making them the main
support for their children and this continues under NL.
– Land suggests by assuming patriarchal family is
ideal (Oakley, Gittens, Barrett and McIntosh; cereal
packet norm – familial ideology), policies actually
help construct and reinforce the family type e.g.
– Policy assuming husband main provider – prevents
wife claiming benefits and maintains her
– e.g. the differences in maternity and paternity
reinforce the idea that the mother is the primary
carer (maternity is longer) and the father is the
earner and provider.
Criticisms of feminist views
• Not all policies maintain patriarchy, e.g. women’s
refuges, equal rights to divorce.
• Drew (1995) some countries less patriarchal and
more ‘individualistic gender regimes’
• Sweden – policies treat women as individuals
not dependents, international differences show
policies play a part in social construction of
family roles and relationships.
Marxists argue that social policy is designed to
• Marxists also oppose the policies of NR.
• They argue that reducing benefits to the poor only
makes them poorer, that means testing for benefits is
degrading to the claimant and likely to dissuade worthy
• They believe that social policies tend to be designed to
maintain the capitalist system.
• By reinforcing traditional gender roles, social policy
moulds women into a reserve army of labour.
• Which can be called on, in times of crisis (Wilson 1985)
for example working women during the Second World
• All institutions maintain exploitation. Policies serve
interests of capitalism, e.g. low level of benefits for old,
disabled – maintained on the cheap, those who can’t be
used to produce profits.
Jacques Donzelot (1977)• Rejects ‘march of progress’ view of social policy
• Argues policy = form of state policy over families.
• Uses Michel Foucault (1976) idea of power - not just
something held by government/state, but within all
relationships, including ‘micro’ level e.g. doctors/patients.
• Professionals use expert knowledge to exercise power
• Donzelot applies to professionals carrying out
survelliance/policing of ‘problem’ (i.e. poor) families seen
As causing anti-social behaviour.
• Social workers, doctors etc. use knowledge to control
and ‘improve’ families, e.g. truants’ parents forced to
attend parenting classes.
• Criticism of Donzelot view
– Doesn’t identify who benefits from policies
Practice exam questions
c) Identify three examples of ways social policies/laws
affect family life.
e) Assess the view that policy maintains inequality within
• We have now finished this family unit.
• Please revise, create summary sheets/spider diagrams,
practice past papers and evaluation cards.
• Prepare for an end module (families and households)