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 VOL. 23, NO. 14FEBRUARY 6, 1998 

The Changing American Family

Social Work Professors Kahn and Kamerman Explore the Changing Family, Current Policy


Authors of the new book: Professors Alfred J. Kahn and Sheila B. Kamerman. Record Photo by Jane Hoffer.
As the definition of family continues to evolve in both the United States and abroad, family policy becomes increasingly significant and complex. A new book edited by two professors in the School of Social Work surveys family policy in four western welfare states sharing a similar pattern of family change that includes declining marriage and rising divorce rates and increasing numbers of out-of-wedlock births, families headed by a single parent and working women with young children.

  Family Change and Family Policies in Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, co-edited by Sheila B. Kamerman, Compton Foundation Centennial Professor for the Prevention of Children’s and Youth Problems, and Alfred J. Kahn, professor emeritus and special lecturer, examines the evolution of each country’s family policies and compares their current provisions.

  In addition to editing the text, which is the first volume in a series to be published by Clarendon Press Oxford, Kamerman and Kahn authored the introduction and the chapter on the United States. This multi-country collaboration is co-directed by Kamerman and Kahn, with Professor Peter Flora at the University of Mannheim, Germany.

  In their analytical introduction that precedes the individual country reports that were written by teams of internationally recognized experts, Kahn and Kamerman identify their subject. “Family policy may be implicit or explicit,” they write, “intended or inadvertent, a consequence of actions with other goals or an indirect way of achieving child- and family-related goals without necessarily articulating their value base.”

  The authors note that family policy usually refers to government actions, and it is the government, together with private sector employers, who enact most family policy. Occasionally, they note, the workplace, the church, political parties or other associations develop policies as instruments of advocacy. Means of implementing family policy include cash benefits; regulations; parenting, child care, and housing policies; social service programs; social insurance, and public assistance.

  In light of the family change that has occurred in the four countries over the last several decades, governments had two clear policy options, according to the authors: make gender equity a high priority, and therefore make family policy explicit and in accordance with that end (as in Scandinavia), or support family work in the home and provide increased financial recognition for parenting (as in Austria and Germany). Kahn and Kamerman conclude that, “the countries in this volume have done neither deliberately nor on a sufficient scale, attempting either to deny or reverse family change via a ‘do-nothing’ policy, to get by with a reluctant and minimalist one.”

  Each of the country reports follows a similar structure, focusing on such themes as family formation and income, families and the division of labor, families and social services, and the political and institutional context in which changes have occurred. Examining each country’s history of family change yields a valuable perspective on the evolution of family policy, or lack thereof, and offers insights into how policies respond to, and shape, family change.

  Upcoming volumes will focus on France and Southern Europe; capitalist and socialist Central Europe (Austria, the Germanies, Hungary and Poland); Scandinavia, and Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands. The concluding two volumes will synthesize the findings of the studies and develop the hypotheses that have been proposed.

  Kamerman and Kahn are co-directors of the Cross-National Studies Research Program at the School of Social Work and have co-authored or co-edited two dozen books on child and family policy.