What do Children Really Need?

29 Oct 2018

A year after reporting on the European Union 7th Framework project “Families And Societies – Changing families and sustainable societies”, we return to examine the findings of one of its reports on the future of families in vulnerable situations.

Project goals included investigating the diversity of family situations, relationships, and life courses in Europe and contributing to evidence-based future policy-making. One of the twelve work packages addressed possible futures of families in Europe and its main objective was to inform policymakers about possible developments and their potential impact on family needs and family well-being in the long run.

The work started by identifying the most important challenges for families and policymakers in the future. It turned out that the key aspect is vulnerability as it shapes the future well-being of families and particularly of the children raised within those families. Vulnerability is multidimensional comprising at least four different dimensions: economic, psychological, physical, and social. The large, multidimensional study concluded that, though there are no family types that are inevitably vulnerable, some specific family types are more at risk of being in vulnerable situations than others.

In the first place, experts named single-parent families. Across Europe, single-parent households are more at risk of poverty and social exclusion than the average population. It is extremely difficult for them to combine family life with paid employment. The second type of families type at risk are large families with many children. Costs, time requirements, and consequences of many problems increase with the number of children. Work–family balance becomes more difficult. Parents with many children sometimes also suffer prejudice (e.g., that they are welfare scroungers not wanting to work who

profit from benefits for children). Other vulnerable situations include families with dependent family members, or families belonging to immigrant groups or other minorities. Most of them suffer from rather specific problems, though one type of vulnerability can lead to others. Finally, children without families (orphans) also have to be mentioned.

The effects of separation

If the share of mothers experiencing union disruption is expected to further increase across cohorts, vulnerability of families with children might also increase because single parenthood often entails vulnerability. Findings demonstrated that less educated women experience a stronger increase in union instability, more spells of lone parenthood, and thus a longer overall time spent as single mothers than more highly educated women.

Main findings and policy recommendations

Vulnerability is multidimensional. ‘Being vulnerable’ refers to a situation with an increased risk of becoming disadvantaged. It implies some sort of disadvantage or inability to deal with challenges or, put in other words, a lack of resources to address upcoming problems. It is crucial to note that vulnerability is not restricted to poverty. Although the economic situation is of central importance, other aspects of vulnerability should not be overlooked.

Families ‘per se’ are not inevitably vulnerable. There are only families in disadvantaged positions and bad situations —situations that make them vulnerable. Policies supporting families to avoid such situations or helping them leave such situations behind them are thus capable of reducing vulnerability. One of the main challenges for modern welfare states is the ongoing reproduction of inequality—and vulnerability— from one generation to the next. Experts participating in focus groups saw education, employment, and the creation of a more family-friendly society as indispensable in supporting vulnerable families and protecting the children living within them. While financial transfers are required to address the most urgent needs of vulnerable families, they alone do not solve the problem of reproduction of vulnerability. On the contrary, they might even lead to the socialization of state dependency. Instead, it is crucial to facilitate families to sustain themselves.

Higher engagement of women in paid work has a positive impact on family incomes and improves women’s situation in terms of financial independence, also with regard to their future pensions. But, on the other hand, pressures it imposed on women should not be overlooked. Without family-friendly workplaces and sufficient childcare, and without changes in men’s role perception women may run the risk of being overburdened, given increased pressure to do their best both in the role of a mother and of an employee.

Higher female labor force participation would bring about economic advantages for women themselves, the family, and the society at large (GDP growth). More gender equity would allow for more involvement of men in raising children as well as more economic security and financial independence for (single) mothers of all ages.

The simulation results of the agent-based model showed that increasing gender equity can also improve the well-being of agents: utility derived by individuals from consumption increases as egalitarian attitudes spread through the society. Men’s involvement in childcare was perceived to be beneficial for children and fathers. A final point highlighting the benefit of more gender-egalitarian arrangements can be seen in the fact that at present, children stay usually with their mothers after parental separation. However, a traditional division of tasks that was freely chosen and agreed upon by equal partners is not necessarily opposing gender equity. Also, although families with children share a lot of needs and concerns, different families will always have specific needs that may differ from those of the majority of families. These needs should not be ignored.

Experts emphasized the relevance of work–family balance to avoid vulnerable states. In this respect, they went far beyond childcare and other ‘classical’ policy measures but rather discussed the necessity for parents of finding time for children and their needs. A better future for children requires both secure financial means and time for parents to be there for their children. Unsuccessful work–family balance means that either or both are missing.

An adequate income, the provision of adequate childcare, sufficient information for parents, and support in reconciling care responsibilities with employment are desperately needed measures. In addition, it was emphasized that family policies often lack a coherent and integrated policy framework.

For policy measures to be effective, their acceptance by parents is crucial. Acceptance includes that policy measures need to be evaluated from the perspective of families, considering their well-being and vulnerability. Furthermore, newly introduced policies should be explained to the public and promoted as it might be that not all parents are aware of their benefits —in particular, if a specific measure is part of a mainstreaming strategy. But also policy measures that were discussed and are not implemented have to be explained. Differences in preferences for specific policy measures between experts and parents suggest that both groups may sometimes have different weightings with regard to short- and long-term benefits for families —and/or different components of family well-being.

Findings of focus groups and the questionnaire both showed that experts expected a weakening of personal relationships to increase future vulnerability. Worries concerned intimate relationships as well as more general ones between strangers. Trust in and support by others is essential in vulnerable situations. This is true for all family situations and single-parent families in particular. Social vulnerability can only be minimized by improving communication and maximizing solidarity among people. This also holds with regard to immigrant families and asylum seekers. Children and families who have fled from their home countries due to discrimination, violence and/or persecution are all in vulnerable situations.

Many issues call for additional research including, for instance, the long-term implications of new gender roles for European societies, mechanisms of vulnerability reproduction within the family, interactions of family-related life-course transitions with educational as well as professional choices and constraints, or the development of measures capturing the diverse aspects of (psychological and social) vulnerability. To give concrete examples, first, an operative policy monitoring would be helpful to identify policy measures that complement or counteract each other in fighting family vulnerability. Therefore, a certain number of policy aspects have to be selected and linked to indices related to family vulnerability. After the development of appropriate indices, monitoring could be implemented. At present, indices constructed and followed by Eurostat can be used for monitoring risks of poverty (and social exclusion)—and thus primarily economic vulnerability. Regarding psychological and social vulnerability, further research would have to identify and combine the components of an appropriate index before efficient monitoring could be implemented. With regard to the accumulation of wealth and the intergenerational reproduction of vulnerability, research should, second, observe and analyze for which sectors of the societies ‘gains’ or ‘losses’ might arise. This is important for several reasons: culminations of disadvantages might be particularly problematic (and unfair) if existing differences manifest themselves over generations —with consequences for society as a whole. For instance, rising inequality resulting from increasing disadvantages to the lower classes might be detrimental to economic growth. Families belonging to lower strata often react to a worsening of their situation by restricting their children’s education. In consequence, the potential of future generations will not be fully exploited.

The better the data we have, the more we can profit. Recent scientific surveys, new databases, latest ad hoc modules and modifications of existing Eurostat surveys all point to the right direction. In many ways, research conducted in the FamiliesAndSocieties project has improved existing knowledge. Nevertheless, longitudinal studies allowing international comparisons are ultimately needed to answer all remaining questions.

* ‘Vulnerability and the future of families with children in Europe’, prepared by Bernhard Riederer, Wittgenstein Centre (IIASA, VID/ OEAW, WU) Vienna Institute of Demography / Austrian Academy of Sciences, 2017).