Family and social policy

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China's one child policy

  • In China the government’s population control policy aimed to discourage couples from having more than one child.
  • The policy is supervised by workplace family planning committees; women must seek their permission to try to become pregnant, and there is often both a waiting list and a quota for each factory.
  • Couples who comply with the policy get extra benefits such as free child healthcare and higher tax allowances. An only child will also get priority in education and housing later in life.
  • Couples who break the agreement to have only one child must repay the allowances and pay a fine. Women face the pressure to undergo sterilisation after their first child.
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Communist Romania

At the other extreme, the former communist government of Romania in the 1980s introduced a series of policies to try to drive up the birth rate, which had been falling as living standards declined. It restricted contraception and abortion, set up infertility treatment centres, made divorce more difficult, lowered the legal age of marriage to 15 and made unmarried adults and childless couples pay an extra 5% income tax.

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Nazi fammily policy

In Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the state pursued a twofold policy. On the one hand, it encourages the healthy and supposedly ‘racially pure’ to breed a ‘master race’ (for example, by restricting access to abortion and contraception).

Official policy sought to keep women out of the workforce and confine them to ‘children, kitchen and church’, the better to perform their biological role.

On the other hand, the state compulsorily sterilised 375,000 disabled people that it deemed unfit to breed on ground of ‘physical malformation, mental retardation, epilepsy, imbecility, deafness or blindness’. Many of these people were later murdered in Nazi concentration camps.

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Democratic societies

By contrast some people argue that in democratic societies such as Britain, the family is a private spehere  of life in  which  the governmment does not intervene, except perhaps when things 'go wronng', for example in cases of child abuse.

However, sociologists argue that in fact, even in democratic societies, the stae social policies play a very important role in shaping  family life.

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Perspectives on families and social policy

Although sociologists agree that social policy can have important effects on family life, they hold different views about what kinds of effects it has and whether these are desirable.


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  • —Society is built on harmony and consensus.
  • —The state acts in the interests of society as a whole and policies are for the good of all.
  • —They say these policies help families to perform the functions more effectively and make life better for members.
  • —Ronald Fletcher argues that the introduction of health, education and housing policies have gradually led to a welfare state that supports the family in performing its functions more effectively.
  • —The NHS means that with the help of doctors, nurses, hospitals and medication, the family is better able to take care of its members.
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  • —It assumes that all members of the family benefit equally from social policies, whereas feminists argue that policies often benefit men at the expense of women.
  • —It assumes that there is a ‘march of progress’, with social policies steadily making life better. However, Marxists argue that policies can also turn the clock back and reverse progress previously made, e.g. cutting welfare benefits to poor families.
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Donzelot: policing the family

  • Jacques Donzelot has a conflict view and sees policy as a form of state power and control over families.
  • He uses Michel Foucault’s concept of surveillance. Foucault sees power not just as something held by government or state but as spread throughout society and found within all relationships.
  • In particular he sees professionals like doctors and social workers as exercising power over their clients by using their own expert knowledge to turn them into ‘cases’ to be dealt with.
  • Donzelot applies these ideas to the family. He is interested in how professionals carry out surveillance of families. He argues that professionals use their knowledge to control and change families. He calls this ‘the policing of families’.
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Dunzelot: policing the family

  • Surveillance is not targeted equally on all social classes. Poor families are more likely to be seen as ‘problem’ families and as the cause of crime and anti-social behaviour. These are the families that professionals target for ‘improvement’.
  • Rachael Condry notes that the state may seek to control and regulate family life by imposing compulsory Parenting Orders through the courts. Parents of young offenders, truants or badly behaved children may be forced to attend parenting classes to leant the ‘correct’ way to bring up children.
  • Donzelot rejects the functionalists’ march of progress view. He sees social policy as a form of state control of the family.
  • By focusing on the micro level of how the ‘caring professions’ act as agents of social control through their surveillance of families, Donezelot shows the importance of professional knowledge as a form of power and control.
  • However, Marxists and feminists criticise Donzelot for failing to identify clearly who benefits from such policies of surveillance. Marxists argue that social policies generally operate in the interests of the capitalist class, while feminists argue that men are the main beneficiaries.
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The New Right

State policies have encouraged changes (such as divorce, cohabitation, same-sex partnerships etc.) and helped to undermine the nuclear family.

Brenda Almond argues that:

  • —Laws making divorce easier undermine the idea of marriage as a lifelong commitment
  • The introduction of civil partnerships and marriage for same-sex couples sends out message that the state no longer sees heterosexual relationships as superior.

—Tax laws discriminate against conventional families with a sole breadwinner. They cannot transfer the non-working partner’s tax allowances to the working partner, so they tend to pay more tax than dual-earner couples, each of whom has a tax allowance.

They also point out that increased rights for cohabiting couples makes marriage and cohabitation more similar. This sends out the signal that the state doesn’t see marriage as special or better.

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Lone parents, welfare policy and dependancy cultur

Particularly critical of welfare policy. In their view, providing ‘generous’ welfare benefits undermines the conventional nuclear family and encourages deviant family types that harm society.

Murray argues that these welfare benefits offer ‘perverse incentives’ – they reward irresponsible or anti-social behaviour. Such as:

  • —If the state will maintain children, some fathers will abandon their responsibilities towards their families
  • —Council housing for unmarried teenage mothers encourages young girls to become pregnant

—The growth of lone –parent families, encouraged by generous benefits, means more boys grow up without a male role model. This lack of paternal authority is responsible for a rising crime rate among young males.

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Lone parents, welfare policy and dependecy culture

Thus, for the New Right, social policy has a major impact on family roles and relationships. Current policies encouraging a dependency culture, where individuals come to depend of the state to support them and their children rather than being self-reliant. This threatens two essential functions that the family fulfils for society:

  • —The successful socialisation of the young
  • —The maintenance of the work ethic among men
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Their solution

  • They say policy must be changes, with cuts in welfare spending and tighter restrictions on who should have benefits.
  • They say this would have several advantages, it would mean taxes could be reduced, this would give fathers more incentive to work and to provide for their families.

  • Also, denying council housing to unmarried teenage mothers would remove a major incentive to become pregnant when very young.
  • They also want policies to support the nuclear family, such as taxes that favour married couples and making absent fathers financially responsible.
  • They disagree with functionalists and say the less the state ‘interferes’ in families the better. Greater self-reliance, and not reliance on the state, is what will enable the family to meet its member’s needs most effectively.
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  • —Feminists argue that it is an attempt to justify a return to the patriarchal nuclear family that subordinated women to men and confined them to a domestic role.
  • —It is wrongly assumed that the patriarchal nuclear family is ‘natural’ rather than socially constructed.
  • —Pam Abbott and Claire Wallace argue that cutting benefits would simply drive many poor families into even greater poverty and make them even less self-reliant.
  • —The New Right ignore the many policies that support an maintain the conventional nuclear family rather than undermine it.
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