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1Family policies have changed significantly since the 1970s. While the policies introduced immediately after World War II were based on a male breadwinner model, the post-1970s policies have acknowledged the increase in dual-earner families, the growing instability and diversity of families, and the families’ growing economic vulnerability (Gauthier, 1996). These changes in the nature of family policies are not unique to a specific set of countries but have been observed in all industrialized countries. In countries as different as France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom, family policies have been reformed in order to better support working parents, single parents, and low-income families (Kamerman and Kahn, 1997a). The question that therefore arises is: Have these changes resulted in a cross-national convergence in family policies? Somewhat surprisingly, this question has not been addressed in the literature. There is a growing literature on the possible globalization of welfare states and on the possible emergence of a European welfare state, but the specific case of family policies has not been addressed.

2This article aims at filling in this gap in the literature. Based on empirical indicators of family policies in 22 industrialized countries, the article analyses the trends in family policies since 1970 and examines their degree of cross-national convergence.

3The article is structured around four sections. Section I reviews the relevant literature and positions this study in a larger body of literature on globalization and convergence of welfare states. Section II is devoted to a discussion of the theoretical determinants of family policy in order to improve our understanding of the relationship between demographic trends and policy responses and to assess the role of national and international-level factors. Section III presents our data and methods, and Section IV presents our results. The article concludes with a discussion of future avenues of research.

4Before turning to our review of the literature, it is important to note that very few countries have adopted an explicit and comprehensive family policy (Kamerman and Kahn, 1978). Instead, most countries have an amalgam of programmes, policies, and laws that are targeted at families with children. For this reason, we use the plural form of “family policies” in this article. We also use, as synonymous, the term “state support for families”.

I – Literature

5There has been much discussion in the literature about the impact of global macro-level factors on societies, including their impact on welfare states (Alber and Standing, 2000; Esping-Andersen, 1994), values (Ingelhart and Baker, 2000), employment (Greenaway and Nelson, 2001), and demographic trends (Billari and Wilson, 2001). And while the conclusions are not totally consistent across studies, they tend to suggest that although global macro-level factors have brought some convergence in institutions, values, and behaviour, national-level characteristics have been remarkably persistent. We review some of this literature below, with a specific emphasis on family policies. We examine the main challenges confronting family policies since the 1970s and consider the policy responses they have elicited.

1 – The common challenges

6Since the 1970s, family policies have been confronted with four main challenges. First, there is the demographic change in family structure and family dynamics including the decline and postponement of fertility, the increase in divorce, single-parent families, cohabitation and births out of wedlock, the increase in female labour force participation, and the growing de-sequentialization and individualization of the life-course (Coleman, 1996; Sardon, 2000; Shanahan, 2000). These trends have been well documented in the literature, and it has been argued that they are part of the Second Demographic Transition (Lesthaeghe, 1995; Van de Kaa, 1987). They have moreover been observed in all industrialized countries, albeit to different degrees of magnitude. The literature has consequently noted the similarity of trends, but has also concluded to a convergence in diversity (Boh, 1989; Kuijsten, 1996; Roussel, 1992). These demographic changes have represented major challenges for family policies that were based on a male breadwinner model. In particular, they have called for the acknowledgement of the diversity in family forms and for increasing support of working parents. Furthermore, the decline in fertility and the consequent population aging have led some countries to introduce pronatalist measures (Demeny, 1987; McIntosh, 1983).

7The relationship between demographic trends on the one hand, and family policies on the other, is complex. While some studies have found that the decrease in fertility in industrialized countries has had no effect on family benefits (Wennemo, 1994), others have found that the increase in the percentage of the elderly has been associated with an increase in family allowance spending (Pampel and Williamson, 1988; Pampel and Adams, 1992) [1]. Other studies, moreover, have warned of the rising inequalities in the share of public resources devoted to children and the elderly in the context of population aging (Preston, 1984). It is beyond the scope of this article to examine the relationship between demographic trends and family policies in further detail. The important point here is that while the demographic changes in families and the increase in female labour force participation have undoubtedly led governments to reform their family policies, competing demands, especially from the growing elderly population, have likely restricted governments’ efforts to support families.

8The second challenge consists of the changes in the economic context and in the governments’ budgets. Successive recessions, higher-than-average unemployment levels, and changes in the nature of employment have increased the economic vulnerability of families in all industrialized countries (Vleminckx and Smeeding, 2001). These changes have put pressure on governments to protect families better against the risk of poverty, and have been behind the introduction of various means-tested and employment-related programmes. In the field of family policies, the changes in the economic context of families have led to the adoption of various means-tested schemes including France’s complément familial (family income supplement) introduced in 1977, and Britain’s Working Families’ Tax Credit introduced in 1999. The adoption of such programmes has, however, been severely constrained by reduced governmental budgets and by pressures to reduce social spending. Despite growing needs, expenditures on cash benefits for families have actually decreased between 1980 and 1995 in several countries (Gornick, 2001).

9The third challenge lies in the emergence of the European Common Market and the increasing salience of the social dimension within the European Union. The adoption of the Social Charter in 1989, together with the adoption of major directives in the field of social policy, has undoubtedly influenced national policies (Wendon, 1998). The Parental Leave Directive in 1996, for example, has been followed by the adoption of related policies in countries that lacked such provisions. The impact of the European Union on national welfare states, however, is complex. For one thing, the European Union has no direct competence in the area of family policies (Quintin, 1999). On the other hand, its competence in the area of equal opportunities for women and men overlaps greatly with the field of family policies. The recent Resolution on “the balanced participation of women and men in family and working life”, as well as the Maternity Directive, the Parental Leave Directive, and the Recommendation on Childcare, are all examples of the major role played by the European Union in the field of family policies. This role is complicated, however, by the diversity of national family policies and by the principle of subsidiarity (Spicker, 1991; Sykes, 1998). Yet it is undeniable that the European Union has played an important role in raising the visibility of family policies in recent decades, especially in the field of work and family life. The Council’s Recommendation on the convergence of social protection objectives and policies (in 1992) is another factor that has exerted some pressure on (or that has at least laid the ground for) convergence within EU member states [2].

10Finally, the fourth challenge is the global economic integration that has been viewed as raising major issues for welfare states (Esping-Andersen, 1994). Global economic integration, it has been argued, weakens the competitiveness of welfare states because of their highly regulated markets and costly social benefits. The desire to remain economically competitive and the fear of social dumping will therefore force governments to roll back their welfare states (Alber and Standing, 2000). This argument has been widely debated in the literature. The European Union, for instance, has been arguing exactly the opposite, claiming that a highly trained and well supported workforce can represent a major competitive advantage and that social policy is consequently a productive factor (Flynn, 1996).

11To summarize, the literature has identified a series of factors that are common to all industrialized countries, and that have challenged existing family policies and welfare states. And while there is no doubt that family policies have changed significantly since the 1970s, it is not clear whether these common challenges have resulted in their cross-national convergence. As seen below, while some scenarios have predicted the convergence of national welfare states, others have predicted that cross-national differences will instead persist or even increase.

2 – The scenarios

12Since the issue of convergence has not been addressed in the literature with specific reference to family policies, our review is based on the more general welfare state literature. This literature has identified four main scenarios concerning the future of welfare states in industrialized countries. Two of these scenarios predict the convergence of welfare states, although the types of convergence differ. According to the upward convergence scenario, the various challenges reviewed above will force welfare states to converge to a Scandinavian-style welfare state, with comprehensive and universal benefits. This “race to the top” scenario could be argued to result from the setting of high standards in the field of social policy (Alber and Standing, 2000). In contrast, the downward convergence scenario predicts convergence towards an American-style welfare state with minimal benefits and room left for market forces (Sykes, 1998). Global integration, it may be argued, is transforming welfare states into “competition states” and is forcing countries to cut back their social expenditures (Alber and Standing, 2000). None of these scenarios has been viewed as very likely in the literature: the Scandinavian-style model is viewed as too costly considering the current economic context, and the American-style model is viewed as too great a threat to the social, economic, and political foundations of European welfare states (and therefore likely to face strong opposition) (Esping-Andersen, 1994) [3].

13In contrast to these convergence scenarios, others have predicted the persistence or even the accentuation of cross-national differences. According to the “frozen welfare state landscape” scenario, deeply entrenched national institutions and histories are acting as buffer against the various challenges reviewed above (Esping-Andersen, 1994). Welfare states have adapted to the various demographic, economic, and political challenges but the responses have varied across welfare states and, thus, they have maintained large differences. For instance, the family policies literature has stressed the importance of Catholicism as a determinant of policies in several western European countries (Castles, 1994; Daly, 1999). Finally, a fourth scenario has predicted the divergence of welfare states (Geyer, 1998). National institutions and histories, it is argued, are mediating global forces and resulting in diverging paths.

14The empirical literature has provided mixed support for these various scenarios. While Greve (1996) concludes that there is convergence of social policy within EU member states, Alber and Standing (2000) conclude that there are heterogeneous responses to global forces and they observe no evidence of convergence [4]. As noted earlier, none of this literature has specifically examined the case of family policies. The cursory analysis by Greve (1996) in fact concludes that all areas of social policy have shown signs of convergence, except that of the family [5]. Needless to say, the literature is at best inconclusive as to the future of welfare states and therefore makes it very difficult to predict, a priori, the cross-national trends in family policies.

3 – A typology of family policy regimes

15In view of the above uncertainty, the analytical strategy adopted in this article involves taking as a starting point the different family policy regimes that were observed in the 1980s. As discussed in Section III, such an analytical strategy will provide a benchmark against which recent trends in family policies can be examined, and the hypothesis of convergence can be tested. There are various ways of ranking the support that countries provide for families. It may be done with respect to specific inputs (e.g. expenditures on families) or outputs (e.g. child poverty). A broader approach is adopted here, based on the overall support provided to families. The typology of family policy regimes presented below is adapted from the influential typology proposed by Esping–Andersen in his Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism and from subsequent studies [6]. The typology identifies four main family policy regimes (see Table 1).

161. The Social-Democratic regime is characterized by universal state support for families, a high level of support for working parents, and a high commitment to gender equality. This regime characterizes the policies in place in Scandinavian countries.

172. The Conservative regime is characterized by a medium level of support for families that tends to vary according to the parents’ employment status, and to be driven by a more traditional view of the gender division of labour. This regime characterizes the policies in place in north-western European countries including Germany, the Netherlands, and France.

183. The Southern European regime is characterized by a high degree of fragmentation along occupational lines and a mix of universal and private services and benefits. It is also a regime characterized by no national guaranteed statutory minimum income scheme. This regime characterizes the policies in place in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

194. The Liberal regime is characterized by a low level of support for families that tends to be targeted at the families with greater needs and leaves room for the market, especially with regard to the provision of childcare facilities. This regime characterizes the policies in place in the United Kingdom and Switzerland, and in non-European countries such as Australia and the United States.

Table 1

Types of family policies as of the late 1980s and early 1990s

Table 1
Policy regime Overall characteristics Cash support Support for working parents Countries Social-Democratic Characterized by universal state support for families, and a high commitment to gender equality. Medium-level of cash support for families in the form of universal cash benefits, but high level of other forms of support that result in low levels of child poverty. High-level of support provided to both parents. Combines long parental and childcare leaves with extensive childcare facilities. Denmark Finland Norway Sweden Conservative Characterized by a system of state support for families that tends to vary according to the parents’ employment status, and that also tends to be driven by a more traditional view of the gender division of labour. Medium-to-high level of cash support. Medium-level of support. Relatively long parental and childcare leaves (in some countries), but more limited childcare facilities. Austria Belgium France Germany Ireland Luxembourg Netherlands Southern European Characterized by a high degree of fragmentation along occupational lines, and a mix of universal and private services and benefits. It is also a regime characterized by no national guaranteed statutory minimum income scheme. Low level of cash support that results in high levels of child poverty. Low level of support. Greece Italy Portugal Spain Liberal Characterized by a low level of support for families that tends to be targeted at families with greater needs, and that leaves room for market forces, especially with regard to the provision of childcare facilities. Low level of support for all families, relatively higher for families in greater need. Low level of support. Responsibilities for childcare provision given to parents and the private sector. Australia Canada Japan New Zealand Switzerland U.K. U.S.A. Sources: Adapted by the author from the work of Esping-Andersen, 1990; Ferrera, 1996; Flaquer, 2000; Gauthier, 1996; Rhodes, 1997.

Types of family policies as of the late 1980s and early 1990s

20The empirical analyses carried out in the late 1980s and early 1990s have generally confirmed the above typology of countries, and have contrasted the high level of support provided to working parents in the Nordic countries, and the low level of cash support provided in southern Europe and in countries such as the United States and Australia (Gauthier, 1996). For the purpose of this article, the key question is whether the recent changes in family policies have maintained the cross-national differences implied in the above typology or whether the recent changes in family policies have started to blur the boundaries between the different regimes. If this were the case, the blurring would raise fundamental questions about the presumed role of national histories and culture in maintaining distinct policy regimes, and would support the suggestion that global changes in the demographic and economic environment of families have called for similar policy responses.

21The literature on family policies has so far not addressed this question. The empirical results presented in Section IV are an attempt to shed light on this issue.

II – Theoretical determinants of family policies

22In order to help us in framing our empirical analysis, we now discuss the major theories that have been suggested to explain the developments of family policies and welfare states. These theories have been grouped in two main categories: theory of industrialization and actor-centred theories [7].

23The literature has also referred to the theory of industrialization as evolutionary theory (Wennemo, 1994) and as structural-functionalist theory (Skocpol and Amenta, 1986). According to this theory, the onset of industrialization changed the structure of society, which in turn created new social problems (Wilensky, 1976). For example, the early stages of industrialization resulted in very high levels of poverty among working-class families and involved extensive child labour. These specific problems could not be solved through the traditional philanthropic channels, but called instead for state intervention (Gauthier, 1996), legislation on child labour and compulsory education, and a series of public health and financial measures to improve support for families. Some forms of state support for families, including cost-of-living bonuses, are examples of early responses by governments to these problems (MacNicol, 1992). Applied to a more contemporary period, the industrialization theory posits that the transition to a post-industrial economy has led to large incompatibilities between work and family responsibilities, precariousness of employment, and the emergence of new poverty, all of which have called for renewed welfare state efforts to protect families. The relationships that are assumed in the literature between the changes in the demographic and economic contexts of families on the one hand, and family policy responses on the other, are inferred from such theories. And since the changes in the demographic and economic contexts of families are common to all industrialized and post-industrialized countries, the theory of industrialization assumes that these common challenges will result in common policy responses. The logic of industrialism furthermore predicts a convergent development of social policy across industrialized countries since the forces at the basis of the development of social policy are assumed to be operating similarly across countries (Vaisanen, 1992) [8].

24Overall, the literature on welfare state and family policies has provided mixed support for this theory. As discussed above, the percentage of elderly people in the population (itself an indicator of the degree of industrialization and an indicator of age-specific needs) has generally been found to have a positive effect on family allowance spending (Pampel and Adams, 1992; Pampel and Williamson, 1988). Fertility, on the other hand, has been found to have no statistically significant effect on family benefits (Wennemo, 1994). As to the level of economic development, captured by the countries’ gross domestic product per capita, it appears to have a statistically significant impact on old age pensions, health care, social insurance, and social welfare, but not on family allowance spending (Pampel and Williamson, 1988). The level of economic development and economic growth were found to have a positive effect, however, on tax allowances for dependent children (Wennemo, 1994).

25The second group of theories focuses on the key role played by various actors in the development of welfare policies, including political parties, advocacy groups, national governments, and other historical institutions. The strength of left-wing parties, the strength and goals of women’s movements, and the degree of state centralization are indicators that have been used in relation to these theories (Korpi, 1989; Skocpol, 1985; Koven and Michel, 1990). In contrast to the industrialization theory, the actor-based theories give more weight to the countries’ histories and institutions and to party politics. Such theories have for instance been used to explain the exceptional nature of the American welfare state (Quadagno, 1987). Applied to the contemporary period, these theories posit that governments’ responses to the global trends that are affecting the demographic and economic contexts of families will reflect the specificities of each country’s history, political make-up, and institutions. While the theory of industrialization predicts common responses to common problems, the state- and actor-centred theories predict divergent responses instead.

26The literature has provided relatively strong support for these actor-centred theories. Family allowance spending and family benefits have been shown to be positively correlated with Roman Catholicism and the percentage of seats held by religious parties in the government, to the cumulative number of years of leftist rule and to leftist vote, and to measures of corporatism and centralization (Pampel and Adams, 1992; Pampel and Williamson, 1988; Wennemo, 1994). Tax allowances for dependent children, however, have not been found to be statistically associated with such variables (Wennemo, 1994). More generally, the welfare state literature has revealed a strong positive effect of Christian democracy on welfare state effort, and a modest effect of social democracy (Huber, Ragin and Stephens, 1993).

27In this article, we do not statistically test these different theories and their related determinants. They provide the backbone to our analysis, however, with the theory of industrialization suggesting a convergence of national family policies, and actor-centred theories suggesting divergence or the persistence of cross-national differences instead. Our empirical approach is descriptive and examines the hypothesis of convergence through the degree of dispersion of countries on some specific indicators of family policies. As discussed below, this seemingly simple descriptive task is particularly difficult in view of the complexity of national family policies and the lack of a comprehensive database.

III – Data and methods

28As mentioned in the introduction, family policies can be defined as an amalgam of policies directed at families with children and aimed at increasing their level of well-being (Gauthier, 1999). From a broad perspective, topics as varied as employment, transport, food, and education policies may be included in the definition of family policies in view of their potential impact on families’ well-being. In general, however, the literature tends to opt for a narrower perspective and to restrict family policies to its core components: financial support for families, services and benefits for working parents, policies related to health and education, and family law. Even such a narrow definition still encompasses numerous types of policies and programmes for families. From an empirical perspective, this multiplicity is compounded by the fact that there is no comprehensive database of family policies that is both cross-nationally comparable and covers a long time-series. There have been calls in scholarly and political circles to set up monitoring systems to assess the overall support of governments for families (so-called “family impact” monitoring systems). At present, no such systems are in place (Cuyers and Kiely, 2000).

29In order to capture state support for families, two main approaches have been used in the literature (Gauthier, 1999). The first involves constructing series of indicators that reflect the amount of support received by various family types. This family-type approach has been successfully used by Bradshaw et al. (1993) in their comparative analysis of state support for families and has revealed large variations across countries and between different types of families. The indicators developed in the studies that have opted for this approach are unfortunately available only for specific years, and consequently do not form a long time-series. As such, they are not suitable for the analysis of long-term trends as considered in this article.

30The second approach uses indicators that are more highly aggregated and that provide measures of the overall degree of governmental effort to support families. Such an approach has dominated the empirical welfare state literature and has relied on indicators such as governmental expenditures on family allowances (Pampel and Adams, 1992; Pampel and Williamson, 1988; Kamerman and Kahn, 1997b). While such indicators overlook the variations across families in terms of the amount of support received, they have the advantage of being available for a large number of countries, and for long time periods. Consequently, this is the approach adopted in this article.

31Our indicators cover two main components of state support for families: the direct and indirect cash benefits for families, and support for working parents. Within each of these categories, our choice of indicators was constrained by data availability. These indicators are described below while the sources of data are described in the Appendix.

321. Direct and indirect cash benefits: Governments may provide financial support to families either directly (e.g. monthly family allowance payment) or indirectly (e.g. tax relief for dependent children). In order to capture these different types of support, we developed an indicator based on the disposable income of families (after taxes and transfers). Our indicator DIEARN represents the yearly amount of direct and indirect cash benefits received by families, and is expressed as a percentage of the earnings of an average production worker [9]. Data for this series refer to the case of a two-parents-one-earner family and are available from 1972 on. In recent years, the OECD has started to publish data on two-earner families and single-parent families. Unfortunately, these data are available only from the mid-1990s. Our indicator captures the amount of support provided to families with average earnings (of a production worker). As discussed above, it does not capture variations across family types and income levels.

332. Support for working parents: In the context of increasing female labour force participation, the level of support for working parents has received increasing attention from governments. Various types of support may be provided to parents including maternity leave, childcare leave, childcare facilities, flex-time, etc. We developed a series of duration-based and benefit-based indicators to capture the extent of governmental support:

  • Duration of maternity leave: the indicator MLWKS expresses the number of weeks of paid maternity leave, including weeks before and after childbirth. It excludes other types of leave such as parental leave and childcare leave [10].
  • Duration of total leave: the indicator TOTWKS expresses the number of weeks of leave covered by the combination of maternity leave and childcare leave. Note that in many countries not all these weeks of leave are paid. Because of inconsistencies across countries in the definition of maternity, parental, and childcare leave, this indicator may capture cross-national differences in the duration of leave more accurately than the previous one. However, since both paid and unpaid leaves are included, the indicator is less good at capturing the actual cross-national differences in cash support for working parents.
  • Cash benefits during maternity leave: the indicator MLPAY expresses the cash benefits received during maternity leave as a percentage of female wages. Since data on cash benefits during the extended childcare leave are not available for all countries and all years, the indicator is restricted to maternity leave.
As explained above, other types of indicators are better suited to capturing the variations in governmental support by family type and income. However, such indicators are not available for long time-series. Another limitation of the indicators used in this study is that they do not factor in the coverage of governmental support and do not take into account the ceilings imposed in some countries on maternity cash benefits. Lack of data has prevented us from taking into account these other dimensions of state support for families. The other widely used alternative in the comparative family policy literature is to use governmental expenditures as indicator of welfare effort (see for example Pampel and Williamson, 1988). Such an approach is subject to the same limitations as those outlined above, and in addition does not allow the analysis of support for working parents. Thus, despite the limitations of the indicators used in this study, we nevertheless believe that they are the best indicators of state support for families that are both cross-nationally comparable and available for a long time-series. Moreover, while the use of more detailed indicators (for specific years) alters the ranking of some countries, in general the patterns obtained confirm the typology of countries outlined above (Gauthier, 1999).

34We constructed the above indicators for 22 industrialized countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The Czech Republic, Hungary, Iceland, Korea, Mexico, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Turkey were excluded because data were not available for the whole time-series, or because the political and economic contexts differed too widely from those of other countries for comparisons to be meaningful. The indicators were constructed for every year between 1970 and 1999. The starting point of the analysis was dictated partly by the availability of data, but also by the fact that the early 1970s marked the end of the so-called golden age of social policy and the beginning of a period of deep welfare state reforms (Kamerman and Kahn, 1997b).

35In the empirical analysis presented in the next section, we first examine trends in cash support for families. The trends are measured in terms of means and standard deviations. We also examine the trends by sub-groups of countries suggested by the typology of family policy regimes. We compare the trends in European Union member states with those of non-members in order to capture the possible influence of the European Union on family policies [11]. We then carry out a similar analysis for the indicators of state support for working parents. Finally, we conclude the empirical section by examining the clusters of countries that emerge when we take both cash support for families and support for working parents into account. We examine the extent to which the clusters have remained stable since 1970. Data for our 22 countries and for selected years appear in Table A of the Appendix.

IV – Results

1 – Direct and indirect cash support for families

36Results regarding cash support for families appear in Figure 1. As defined above, the indicator DIEARN refers to the direct and indirect cash benefits received by families, as a percentage of the average earnings of a production worker. Figure 1A reports the trends in cash benefits across all 22 countries for the period 1972 to 1999. The upper line refers to the indicator DIEARN described above while the lower line refers to an index FA12EARN that corresponds to a more restrictive definition of cash benefits confined to family allowances (see the Appendix for more details). Results reveal an increase in cash support for families from a value of 11% in 1972 to 13% in 1999 (upper line). Results in Figure 1A (lower line) indicate that direct support for families in the form of family allowances has also increased. But while countries have, on average, increased their cash support for families, the levels of support have become more dispersed. As seen in Figure 1B the vertical bars, which capture the 95% confidence interval, have increased between 1972 and 1999. Thus, instead of converging, national family benefits have diverged over time.

Figure 1

Trend and dispersion of cash benefits as a percentage of earnings, 22 countries, 1970-99

Figure 1

Trend and dispersion of cash benefits as a percentage of earnings, 22 countries, 1970-99

Sources: Computed from a database of family policy indicators compiled by the author. See Appendix for details.

37Results by subgroup of countries appear in Figures 1C and 1D. They reveal major differences across subgroups in terms of levels of cash support. The Conservative cluster in Figure 1C appears to have provided the highest level of cash support for families throughout the entire period. The Social-Democratic cluster follows with support that is around 2 percentage points lower. The Southern European cluster and the Liberal cluster appear to provide the smallest amount of cash support for families. However, while cash support provided by the Southern European cluster has increased since the early 1980s (following an initial decline), it has remained relatively stable in Liberal countries. Additional results not reported here suggest that the degree of dispersion (as captured by the standard deviation) within these clusters of countries has remained relatively constant. Also, the degree of dispersion appears to be smallest within the Social-Democratic cluster, thus indicating a higher degree of within-cluster coherence. It appears largest in the Conservative cluster, indicating a lower degree of within-cluster coherence.

38Finally, results in Figure 1D contrast the trends in cash support for families in EU and non-EU countries. The gap between these two clusters of countries has tended to increase over time and reached higher levels in the 1990s than in the early 1980s.

39Overall, despite competing demands from the pension and unemployment components of the welfare state, the financial support for families has not faltered since the 1970s. Quite the contrary: it has increased in all countries. Only in countries belonging to the Liberal family policies regime has financial support for families remained stable over time. Thus, while similar demographic and economic trends appear to have resulted in similar outcomes (i.e. a general increase in cash benefits), they have not resulted in cross-national convergence. The dispersion across countries has actually increased.

2 – Support for working parents

40We first examine the duration of leave. We distinguish between the duration of maternity leave (index MLWKS), which covers the period immediately before and after childbirth and is paid, and the total duration of leave (index TOTWKS), which includes both maternity and childcare leave and which may not be paid over its entire duration. Results in Figure 2A show the average trend in these two duration indicators across the 22 countries since 1970. Results reveal that while the duration of maternity leave has remained relatively constant between 1970 and 1999, the total duration of leave has increased sharply. From an average around 18 weeks in 1970, the total duration of leave had reached more than 80 weeks by 1999. This strong increase reflects the adoption of childcare leave programmes in the majority of countries since the 1970s. Whereas in 1970 Austria was alone in offering a childcare leave scheme, all countries except Switzerland did so in 1999. The introduction of childcare leave (paid in some countries and unpaid in others) thus marked a major discontinuity in family policies. Such leave is part of the governmental responses to the increase in female labour force participation and to the incompatibility between work and family responsibilities.

Figure 2

Trend and dispersion of duration of maternity and childcare leave and of maternity benefits as a percentage of wages, 22 countries, 1970-99

Figure 2

Trend and dispersion of duration of maternity and childcare leave and of maternity benefits as a percentage of wages, 22 countries, 1970-99

Sources: Computed from a database of family policy indicators compiled by the author. See Appendix for details.

41In line with what was observed for cash benefits, the increase in the duration of leave was accompanied by an increase in the dispersion of countries. Figures 2B and 2C show that the cross-national dispersion of both indicators has increased since 1970. Thus, while all countries have responded to the increase in female labour force participation by increasing their support for working parents, they have also diverged in the magnitude of their response.

42As to the cash benefits received during maternity leave (index MLPAY), Figure 2D suggests that they have increased between 1970 and the early 1980s, and have remained stable since then. The dispersion across countries has remained stable during the entire period. It should be remembered, however, that this indicator pertains only to maternity leave. No comparable indicator is available for the total duration of leave.

43Once again, these general trends hide major cross-national differences. Figure 3 displays the trends by subgroup of countries. Regarding the duration of maternity leave, Figure 3A reveals that while it has remained constant in the Liberal, Southern European, and Conservative clusters, it has substantially increased in the Social-Democratic cluster. The divergence is partly due to the ways maternity leave and childcare leave programmes are defined in the different countries. When we take into account the total duration of leave, as in Figure 3B, the cross-cluster differences mostly disappear, leaving only the Liberal cluster behind. What this graph does not show, however, is that while childcare leave programmes are paid in most countries belonging to the Social-Democratic and Conservative clusters, this is not the case in the Southern European cluster. Thus, while both Spain and Finland, for example, offer a 3-year childcare leave, this leave is paid in Finland but unpaid in Spain.

Figure 3

Trends in childcare leave provision by welfare state cluster and membership of the European Union, 22 countries, 1970-99

Figure 3

Trends in childcare leave provision by welfare state cluster and membership of the European Union, 22 countries, 1970-99

Sources: Computed from a database of family policy indicators compiled by the author. See Appendix for details.

44Results for EU versus non-EU countries (Figures 3D and 3E) mirror the previous ones showing a modest increase in the duration of maternity leave and a larger increase in the total duration of leave. Moreover, the graphs reveal a longer duration of leave in EU member states than in non-EU ones, and a growing divergence between these two groups of countries especially as regards total duration of leave.

45Finally, Figures 3C and 3F display the trends in benefits paid during the period of maternity leave. Trends and levels again differ sharply by subgroup of countries. Maternity cash benefits are higher in the Social-Democratic, Conservative and Southern European clusters than in the Liberal one. And while maternity cash benefits have remained relatively stable in the Liberal and Conservative clusters, they have increased in the Social-Democratic and Southern clusters. Also revealed is the large difference in maternity benefits between EU and non-EU countries, a difference that has been relatively stable over time.

46In summary, the data reveal a significant increase in state support for working parents, especially when the total duration of leave is used as indicator. Once again, however, the data suggest a divergence rather than a convergence across countries. In particular, they show the increasing gap between the Liberal cluster and the other three clusters.

3 – Changes in the clusters of countries

47One of the questions asked earlier was whether the typology of countries, as observed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has remained constant over time, or whether the boundaries between the different family policy regimes have become partly blurred. To answer this question, we mapped countries according to their level of cash support for families and their level of support for working parents. As overall indicator of support for working parents, we used the duration of maternity leave and the maternity benefits in combination. By multiplying the two indicators, we get a measure MLE of the number of fully paid weeks (e.g. 16 weeks paid at 70% is the equivalent of 11 weeks fully-paid). The results appear in Figure 4. We mapped the countries at three points in time: 1972, 1985, and 1999.

Figure 4

State support for families in 1972, 1985, and 1999, by cluster

Figure 4

State support for families in 1972, 1985, and 1999, by cluster

48Our results suggest that the clusters of countries have not been stable between the 1970s and 1990s. In 1972, the countries were widely dispersed and the clusters difficult to distinguish. A relatively large area had to be covered in Figure 4 to include all the countries belonging to the same family policies regime. This is particularly the case for the Conservative cluster. As to the Southern European cluster, it is not clearly identifiable in 1972. The four countries belonging to this cluster are scattered and as such do not form a real cluster. Results for 1972 therefore suggest that while there was a broad difference between countries providing low levels (lower left section of the graph) and countries providing high levels (upper right section) of state support for families, the cross-national differences did not match those suggested by the typology of family policies. This is an important point that has not been clearly made in the literature.

49By 1985, the countries had altered their position and the clusters of countries are more easily distinguishable (note that the scales in the three graphs are different). The Social-Democratic cluster, characterized by medium levels of cash support for families and high levels of support for working parents, appears at the top of the Figure. The Liberal cluster appears at the bottom of the figure, with medium-to-low levels of cash support and low levels of support for working parents. The Conservative cluster appears in an intermediate position. The Southern European cluster is more clearly visible than was the case in 1972, but only if it is restricted to Italy, Portugal, and Spain. Greece appears as an outlier that would more naturally fit in the Conservative cluster. The interesting thing about 1985 is the high concentration of countries in the centre of the Figure. Such a high concentration, not visible in 1972, suggests some degree of cross-national convergence—although not for all countries.

50Finally, results for 1999 reveal a growing dispersion across countries. The Liberal cluster is still tightly grouped in the lower left section of the graph, but it has moved even further from the Social-Democratic cluster. The results also reveal the increasing dispersion within the Social-Democratic and Conservative clusters. As to the Southern European cluster, it appears to share characteristics with the Liberal cluster, but also with some countries belonging to the Conservative cluster (i.e. France, the Netherlands, and Ireland).

51Overall, the results suggest that the four-fold typology of family policies is a relatively recent development and that it is does not clearly map the cross-national differences that were observed in the early 1970s. By comparison, it gives a better, though far from perfect, mapping of the situation in 1985 and 1999. But more importantly, the results suggest tremendous changes between the 1970s and the 1990s, changes that are definitively not consistent with the frozen landscape scenario.


52We started by identifying four major challenges with which family policies have been confronted since the 1970s, including changes in family structure and dynamics and the increase in female labour force participation; changes in the economic situation of families and in governments’ budgets; political changes within the European Union; and global economic integration. These challenges have been observed in all countries [12]. Following a logic-of-industrialism perspective, these challenges can be expected to have elicited common political responses, and more over to have produced convergence in the countries’ national family policies. Following an actor-centred perspective, these four challenges can be expected instead to have resulted in different responses across countries depending on national institutions, histories, and political make-up. These responses may have maintained the major cross-national differences, or may have even produced more cross-national divergence.

53The analysis presented in this article confirms that family policies have changed since 1970. They have been characterized by an increase in state support for working parents, and by a modest increase in cash support for families (which was probably constrained by reduced government budgets). The analysis reveals, however, that these trends had different levels of magnitude across countries and have consequently increased the divergence across countries. This is especially the case with regard to state support for working parents. The Liberal cluster, where it remains low, has been increasingly marginalized.

54The analysis used as organizational framework the typology of family policies that had been observed in the 1980s. Such an organizational framework proved to be very useful in highlighting major differences across family policy regimes in the level of state support for families. The clustering of countries along four main family policy regimes, however, appeared to be a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1972, the four clusters were not clearly identifiable. They were more clearly visible in 1985 and 1999, although the membership of some countries in specific clusters could be questioned. The EU countries appeared systematically to provide higher levels of state support for families. No clear convergence within EU countries was observed.

55From a demographic perspective, the results suggest that the rapid decline of fertility from the 1960s on did not result in large increases in cash support for families, nor did the large increase in population aging reduce governmental support for families. Our results furthermore suggest that countries were particularly responsive to the increase in female labour force participation, although less so in the Liberal cluster. Overall, the results lead to conclusions similar to those reached in the demographic literature on family changes, namely that there exist some common trends but no cross-national convergence. In line with other welfare studies, our results also suggest that family policies have been adjusted to account for the new demographic and economic realities of families, but that these adjustments have not reduced the gap between nations. The results presented in this article support the divergence scenario.

56The analysis was limited, however, to some specific indicators of family policies that captured specific dimensions and components of the overall state support for families. In particular, the empirical indicators used in this article captured inadequately the variations in state support across family types, as well as other dimensions of state support for families such as that of gender. Current initiatives by various groups of scholars should result in broader databases and allow more detailed analyses of trends in family policies.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual seminar of the European Observatory for Family Matters (Seville, October 2000). The author is grateful to the conference organizers and participants for their comments. The author is also grateful to the anonymous referee and the editor of this journal for their very useful suggestions. The paper received funding from the Canada Research Chair Program. Finally, the author acknowledges the contribution of Anita Bortnik and Tingting Lu in the development of the database used in this paper. Without their assistance, this paper would not have been possible.

Sources of data

57A summary of the main sources of data used to construct the indicators analysed in this article is provided below.

58— Direct and indirect cash benefits for families, DIEARN: Data used to construct this series comes from the OECD Tax/Benefit series. The series was constructed from published data that have appeared in various publications since 1972. The most recent publication in this series is: Taxing Wages 1999/2000, 2000 ed. Note that the title of this series has changed over time. We used the data for a two-child one-earner family. The indicator represents the difference between the disposable income of a two-child one-earner family and that of a single earner and is expressed as a percentage of the average earnings of a production worker.

59— Family allowances: In Figure 1, we also used an index FA12EARN of family allowances. Data used to construct this series come mainly from the US publication entitled Social Security Programs throughout the World. This publication appears every other year. We used the series from 1969. When possible, we used data from the European Union and the Council of Europe to complete the series. The data are published in a series of publications entitled Comparative Tables of Social Security Systems. Note that the title of this series has also changed over time. We used the data for a two-child family. When a range of benefits was available, we used the highest amount. As a result, we may be over-estimating the average amount received by families in some countries. The monthly amount of family allowances is expressed as a percentage of the monthly average wage of a production worker. We used the data published by the OECD in Tax/Benefit series (see above) to get the denominator of this indicator.

60— Support for working parents: Data used to construct the series MLWKS and TOTWKS come from the US publication Social Security Programs throughout the World and from various governmental documents. We used data from the European Union and the Council of Europe (see “family allowances”) to complete the series. With regard to the indicator MLPAY related to “Cash benefits during maternity leave”, in most countries the benefits are proportional to women’s regular wages. In the exceptional cases for which a fixed amount is paid instead, we converted this amount into a percentage of wages using data on female wages in manufacturing published in the ILO Year Book of Labour Statistics.

61The dataset used in this article is available upon request from the author. It will also be posted on the author’s website (

Table A

Values of the family policy indices for selected years

Table A
DIEARN72 DIEARN85 DIEARN99 MLPAY70 MLPAY85 MLPAY99 MLWKS70 MLWKS85 MLWKS99 TOTWKS70 TOTWKS85 TOTWKS99 Australia 6.8 8.4 9.8 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 52 Austria 19.2 18.0 18.9 100 100 100 12 16 16 58 60 112 Belgium 15.7 16.6 21.2 60 80 77 14 14 15 14 66 67 Canada 8.5 12.3 10.6 67 60 55 15 15 15 17 17 25 Denmark 11.7 10.4 24.5 88 90 100 14 24 30 14 24 82 Finland 11.7 11.6 9.8 39 80 70 9 43 52 9 160 164 France 17.9 14.9 12.7 50 90 100 14 16 16 14 110 162 Germany 8.0 12.0 21.2 100 100 100 14 14 14 14 14 162 Grece 1.7 17.9 13.6 50 50 50 12 12 16 12 38 42 Ireland 12.0 13.9 13.9 34 70 70 12 14 14 12 14 42 Italy 11.7 8.9 13.6 80 80 80 17 22 22 17 48 65 Japan 5.3 6.0 4.7 60 60 60 12 12 14 12 12 58 Luxembourg 17.0 23.4 27.1 75 100 100 12 16 16 12 16 68 New Zealand 10.6 12.4 5.5 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 52 Netherlands 10.2 10.8 11.8 100 100 100 12 12 16 12 12 68 Norway 11.3 16.0 12.5 32 100 100 12 18 42 12 64 116 Portugal 13.1 4.8 9.2 100 100 100 9 13 17 9 117 121 Spain 7.3 5.1 9.3 75 75 100 12 14 16 12 162 164 Sweden 12.6 11.0 8.2 64 71 63 26 39 64 26 85 85 Switzerland 6.7 10.8 13.4 0 0 0 10 10 16 10 10 16 United Kingdom 10.2 12.8 8.1 36 34 44 18 18 18 18 18 44 United States 8.8 7.5 10.8 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 12 Where: DIEARN: Index of direct and indirect cash benefits; MLPAY: Index of maternity benefits; MLWKS: Index of the duration of maternity leave; TOTWKS: Index of the dura tion of the total maternity and childcare leave. See text for details. Sources: Computed from a database of family policy indicators compiled by the author. See Appendix for details.

Values of the family policy indices for selected years


  • [*]
    Department of Sociology, University of Calgary, Canada.
  • [1]
    The relationship between the percentage of elderly and family allowance spending is complex. If the percentage of aged citizens is taken as an indicator of the countries’ level of development, then a positive impact on family allowances may be expected, according to the logic of industrialism. On the other hand, if the percentage of aged citizens is taken as an indicator of voters’ preference and interests, then a negative impact may be expected.
  • [2]
    Our brief discussion of the European Union does not explore the different mechanisms through which it may have influenced national family policies. For a more extensive discussion, see Alber and Standing (2000).
  • [3]
    There is a large body of literature on the future of European social policy. Readers are referred to Hagen (1992), Kleinman and Piachaud (1992), and Leibfried and Pierson (1992), among others, for a lengthier discussion. For a discussion on types of convergence, see Bowles and Wagman (1997).
  • [4]
    There is a vast literature in this field. Readers are referred to the review by Alber and Standing (2000) for more information.
  • [5]
    Greve (1996) argues that convergence in the area of family spending is evident once Greece is taken out of the calculation.
  • [6]
    Esping-Andersen’s typology, however, was not developed with reference to family policies. Instead, cross-national differences in the field of pension, sickness, and unemployment benefits were used to develop his typology of welfare state regimes. Esping-Anderson’s typology has been criticized on various grounds: for having misclassified some countries (including Australia) (Castles and Mitchell, 1993), for having overlooked the existence of a distinct welfare state regime in southern Europe (Leibfried, 1992), for having played down the within-regime differences (Leira, 1991), and for having neglected the gender dimension in his initial analysis (Sainsbury, 1994, Gordon, 1990; Orloff, 1993). Nonetheless, Esping-Andersen’s typology has had a large influence on the literature, and has provided a useful framework to analyse the dynamics of welfare states.
  • [7]
    We do not discuss here the Marxist and neo-Marxist theories that posit that developments in the welfare states are governmental responses to protect the production and reproduction of capitalism. Readers interested in these theories are referred to O’Connor (1973) and Offe (1984).
  • [8]
    This perspective is also referred to as the “consensus” approach in the literature.
  • [9]
    “An adult full-time production worker in the manufacturing sector whose earnings are equal to the average earnings of such workers” (OECD definition).
  • [10]
    The exception is Sweden for which the parental leave scheme has been included in this indicator, the reason being that Sweden does not have a formal maternity leave scheme, the latter having been replaced in the 1970s by a parental leave. In other countries, parental leave schemes are usually schemes that complement the maternity leave scheme (e.g. Canada).
  • [11]
    We used membership of the European Union as in 1999 and kept it constant over the whole 1970–99 period. Such a decision does not reflect the political reality of the European Union, but ensures consistency in the comparison of clusters over time.
  • [12]
    Obviously the political changes within the European Union have been observed only in EU member states.


This article examines the trends in family policies in 22 industrialized countries since 1970. Based on time-series of indicators of cash benefits and support for working parents, it examines the hypothesis of convergence in national family policies. Results suggest that although all countries have increased their support for families since 1970, and all countries have adapted their policies to reflect the new demographic and economic realities of families, there has been no cross-national convergence. Results even suggest a divergence as captured by the growing cross-national dispersion of the family policy indicators. Results are thus in line with other studies of welfare states which have concluded that cross-national differences persist in spite of global macro-level factors.



Este artículo analiza la evolución de las políticas familiares desde 1970 en 22 países industrializados. A partir de series cronológicas de prestaciones monetarias y de las ayudas otorgadas a los padres que trabajan, el artículo examina la hipótesis de convergencia de políticas familiares. Aunque todos los países han aumentado las ayudas familiares desde 1970 y han adaptado sus políticas para dar mejor respuesta a las nuevas realidades demográficas y económicas familiares, no ha habido convergencia entre países. Al contrario, los resultados sugieren una mayor divergencia. Los resultados concuerdan con los de otros estudios sobre el Estado del bienestar, que muestran que las diferencias entre países persisten a pesar de la presencia de fuerzas globales observadas a nivel internacional.


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Anne H. Gauthier [*]
Anne H. Gauthier, Department of Sociology, University of Calgary, 2500 University Dr. N.W., Calgary (Alberta), Canada, T2N 1N4, Fax: 403 282 9298
  • [*]
    Department of Sociology, University of Calgary, Canada.
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