We are family

Family policy is in the air, even more surely than spring is in Ottawa. While there is some debate about how government should support, or at least not hinder, family development and health, a detailed assessment of family policy published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy in 2003, entitled Investing in Our Children: Assessing Family Policy in Canada − A New Deal for for Families and Children, includes the following advice:

[T]ax and transfer policies should be designed so as to retain incentives, especially in the context of family support. The policies should: encourage labour-market participation making earnings worthwhile and a substantial proportion of family income; maintain and provide incentives for dependent care to be given by the family; offer sufficient incentives for the bearing and raising of children; and avoid incentives for families to split into separate units, because long-term marital relationships serve to enhance the well-being of men, women and children.

As the Institute for Marriage and the Family Canada prepares to hold its one-day policy conference entitled “Beyond the front door: Engaging families for strong economic and social policymaking” in Ottawa (on Thursday, 11 March 2010), the United Kingdom is consulting with its citizens on family policy as well.

With a green paper released earlier this month, entitled Support for all: the Families and Relationships Green Paper, proposes questions for discussion.  These relate to what government can do to support families, to how to create a context in which seeking parenting help is “socially acceptable,” and what services need to be changed and how to make them more “family-friendly.” Some specific proposals relate to mediation in family law cases, barriers to access to children for extended family members, and a comprehensive ‘advice service” for families.

The Institute of Marriage and the Family Canada is not the only national organization focussed on Canadian families and the policies that  affect them. The Vanier Institute of the Family has as its vision”to make families as important to the life of Canadian society as they are to the lives of individual Canadians.”

Where the differences emerge is in the explicit or inferred definition of “family” that each applies.  The Vanier institute for example, offers the following definition:

.any combination of two or more persons who are bound together over time by ties of mutual consent, birth and/or adoption or placement and who, together, assume responsibilities for variant combinations of some of the following:

  • Physical maintenance and care of group members
  • Addition of new members through procreation or adoption
  • Socialization of children
  • Social control of members
  • Production, consumption, distribution of goods and services, and
  • Affective nurturance – love

The UK Green Paper, despite its 145-page length, has not included a definition of “family.”  It has however, implicitly recognized that variations exist in the forms families take:

while family forms have diversified, families have not changed in terms of the
special meaning most people attach to them, the huge significance they
play in many millions of lives, or in the love and security that are their
greatest gifts to those of us fortunate to live in happy families.

The Institute for Marriage and the Family Canada’s definition of the family is not apparent from its website, which does list its core beliefs:

The IMFC believes that healthy marriages and strong families are the fundamental cornerstones in the foundation of Canadian society.

Despite apparent differences in life-views, what all three have in common is their shared commitment to supporting families and their shared view that families are central to the social well-being of children and ultimately adults.

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