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It’s a family affair

27 April 2011

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Remember what Tolstoy said about families? “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But what is it that makes a family happy or safeguards its well-being? A new OECD report, Doing Better for Families, provides some answers, and looks at what governments can do to support the family in a time of rapid social change.

The extent of that change is striking. In 1970, women in OECD countries had an average of 2.7 children; today that’s down to 1.7 children. Other changes: In 1970, the average age at which a woman had her first child was 24; by 2008 that had risen to 28. Also in 1970, just over 8 people in every 1000 got married in a given year; by 2009, the marriage rate was down to just 5 in a 1000. Over the same period, the divorce rate doubled to 2.4 divorces per 1000 people. 

Another change is that more women now work and have university qualifications than before. There’s a lot of variation between OECD countries, but on average more than 6 out of 10 mothers with children age 16 or under have some sort of job. On average, about 60% of families now have two breadwinners.

It’s perhaps a little surprising, then, that there’s been a rise – albeit fairly small – in the number of children living in poverty. Just around 12.7% of children in OECD countries are poor, i.e. living in a household with less than half the median income; this rises to 20% or more in a number of OECD countries, including Mexico, the United States and Poland. The problem can be especially acute for lone parents: Almost everywhere, poverty rates in families with a jobless single-parent are at least twice as high as among those who are working.

Can governments help? They already spend about 2.4% of GDP on average to support families. Some of this goes direct to families, through child allowances paid to parents, for example, and some is indirect, such as providing childcare. With budgets tightening in many countries, there’s a risk that this spending could face cuts. That could be a mistake, according to OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría: “Family benefits need to be well designed to maintain work incentives, but they need to be effective in protecting the most vulnerable, otherwise we risk creating high, long-term social costs for future generations”

The report argues that governments may need to rethink when they spend money on families. For instance, researchers like Nobel laureate James Heckman have long argued that children – especially those in the poorest families – enjoy lifelong benefits most from investment in the preschool years. Yet, according to Doing Better for Families, “many countries wait at least six years before the main public intervention towards child development begins”. The result is that, by the time they go to school, children from the poorest families may already be at a disadvantage in terms of their development compared to children from better-off families. The report suggests that there may be a case for shifting public spending: At tertiary level, it says, “countries could envisage a greater role for private investment and a well-developed system of student loans. Freed-up public resources could then be spent on young children.”

The report suggests a number of other approaches that could make life better for families. For example, it says a business case can be made for more family-friendly workplaces, where employees enjoy more flexible working arrangements. The benefits include “improved retention rates (up to 99%) of female employees after taking maternity leave; reduced overhead costs through home-working and flexible contractual arrangements; and increased productivity and creativity of workers”.

Useful links

A Facebook chat on Doing Better for Families with Dominic Richardson, an OECD expert on child well-being and Willem Adema, a senior economist and expert on family policy at the OECD starts later today (27 April) at 3pm Paris time (that’s 2pm in London, 9am in New York, 10pm in Tokyo).  

OECD work on children and families and on preschool and school

Doing Better for Children

OECD Family Database

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