The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
Where in the world is the best place to raise a family? Which countries best support family health and growth with a diverse array of childcare and family leave policies? Where can parents most easily find flexible employment? Where is divorce uncommon, fertility robust, and intergenerational ties healthy?
The Novae Terrae Foundation, in cooperation with the Catholic University of Milan, has recently published a large and comprehensive review of the family worldwide in an attempt to answer some of these questions. The Independent Global Index on Family (IGIF), published earlier this year, “aims at providing a synthetic measure of how the family, particularly with children, is supported in different countries over the world, being aware of marked cultural differences.”
The researchers begin by explaining just what they mean in the term “family”:
On the one hand, the desire to find the family underlying many forms of living together denotes an unequivocal impulse to “make a family,” on the part of both the individual and society; on the other, the difficulty in acknowledging the family shows that the foundations of the family relationship, their essential nature, have weakened to the point of almost disappearing. . . . The thesis of pluralization, which prevails in the Western today world [sic], forces us—in a sense: to make the idea of family a problem, to ask ourselves about the meaning of a relationship that until a few decades ago was taken for granted.
There is real truth here. It is well noted that the term “family” is hotly contested today precisely because it lies in human nature to form families, even if the dark side of that same nature then wants to twist that meaning to its own desires. But this study concerns a very specific definition of family—indeed, the only real definition, what Novae Terrae Foundation CEO Luca Volontè describes in the Introduction as “the stable relationship between two hetero people. It is based on marriage and it has the purpose of procreation. It should focus on sexual differences and reciprocity, intergenerational solidarity and the principle of non-renumeration.” The “underlying thesis” supporting this work, according to Volontè, “is that the family, despite the changes taking place, is not losing its uniqueness, remaining a fundamental institution with a specific identity.” The family may change—the authors describe it as “a morphogenetic structure”—but the married-parents-with-children structure is one which they say can be found throughout history, and it remains “an invariant constituent family nucleus.”
The researchers name four key dimension that they believe comprise the identity of the family: generativity, named the “main goal,” both through bearing children and also through forming and maintaining a number of other close social relationships; sexuality as it is expressed between a husband and wife; reciprocity in intergenerational exchange; and the “gift” of family ties. The underlying assumption of the IGIF is that the state has a responsibility to support the family in its various functions to produce flourishing human beings. The aims of the IGIF are twofold:
1) “on the one hand, to observe the structural and constituent characteristics of the family in different countries: how it is constituted with respect to the marriage bond, stability and presence of children”;
2) “on the other, to evaluate how the family is supported (by which resources?): there we consider its main task of caring between generations and identify access to employment without gender discrimination and childcare services as necessary, but not sufficient, resources.”
To accomplish these goals, the IGIF measures a set of three key indicators. The first, “structure,” encompasses the concepts of parenthood and marriage, and is measured in things such as the fertility rate, age of mother at first birth, marriage rate, cohabitation rate, and divorce rate. The second indicator, “resources supporting the family in its basic tasks,” is further split into economic and contextual, and examines the labor force participation rate of both men and women, maternal employment rate (which differs from the labor rate participation rate of women in that it measures specifically women who have born children, versus all women), youth employment, per capita Gross National Income (GNI), proportion of children in childcare at various ages, work-family leave, the child tax deduction, and government spending on family benefits. The third indicator, social resources, concerns the health of family relationships, particularly trust and concern, as measured by citizens’ responses to a set of questions. (Not all countries have data for all indicators; where this happens, it is indicated.) In computing, then, the researchers end up with three “sub-indices” (two for the middle indicator, “resources supporting the family in its basic tasks”): “structure,” “domestic economic resources” (job opportunity), “contextual resources” (tax policy, parental laeve, childcare policies), and “social resources” (family associations, including levels of intergenerational trust and concern).
The results contain both expected winners and some surprising anomalies. Topping the list of countries for total IGIF score, which takes into account all these indicators, are, in order: Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Israel, Germany, Switzerland, Lithuania, Russia, and Iceland. The U.K. and U.S. fall at spots 28 and 29, respectively, and the Slovak Republic, Peru, Croatia, and Macedonia fall in the bottom four spots. A few things are notable in these rankings. First, as the researchers point out, is the “lack of a clear geographical articulation, except for a greater presence in the first positions of some north European countries.” Also noteworthy is that about half the countries have an IGIF score between 0.60 and 0.50, indicating “a generic support to the family, but with some deficit.”
As something of an anomaly, Malawi appears in this middle range, at position number 16. The researchers credit this to the amazing strength of family structure—high rates of marriage, very low incidence of divorce, and high fertility, although data sources are perhaps unreliable in some respects and the researchers caution the reader to consider this. Malawi earns an astonishing 0.94 in this category. To compare, the next-best country in terms of structure is Turkey, at 0.71, and all but 10 of the 46 countries under consideration earn scores below 5.0. Taking the bottom places in terms of structure are Portugal, Spain, and Peru.
In the sub-index of domestic economic resources—job availability—no clear patterns emerge. Iceland, the Netherlands, and Switzerland are at the top; Croatia, Serbia, and Turkey are at the bottom. In the contextual resources sub-index—which includes “care services, family-work leave system and fiscal policies for the family”—Lithuania, Belgium, and France top the list, with Poland, Malawi, and Macedonia bringing up the bottom. And finally, in the social resources sub-index—levels of intra-family concern and trust—Norway, Denmark, and Sweden are the winners, with Macedonia, Korea, and Croatia falling at the bottom. In summary, the researchers note:
Though we observe good social resources overall, in terms of the presence of family associations and a basic trust in parental networks and others in general, as potential faciliatators for mobilizing relationships, economic resources predominate particularly in Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden, Germany, Iceland, Austria, Luxembourg and Japan; while contextual resources prevail expecially [sic] in Estonia, Belgium, France, Cyprus, Israel, Slovenia and Korea.
One thing to note here. The researchers seem to give equal weight to all the indices, so that nations with low structural index values—Denmark, New Zealand, and Sweden—still take the top three slots in overall IGIF scores, due to higher-than-normal scores in the other indices. The researchers note that
in some countries . . . despite the high levels of economic and/or contextual resources for support for care tasks, the structural dimension in terms of children and marriage remains low. This is the case of Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden and Germany, where we find situations that might be called “I could, but I don’t want to.”
And in a further comment on nations with high economic resources and good social resources, but lower levels of structural and contextual resources, the researchers note: “here a willingness to invest only in the economic dimension emerges (employment and fiscal policies for families), however with poor results on the structural side.”
There is a tension here, which the researchers touch upon in the conclusion but, given the descriptive nature of this Index, do not elaborate on fully. Namely, among the top ten countries are several known as generous welfare states. And where the state steps in—to provide subsidized childcare, encourage work outside the home for both fathers and mothers, etc.—family structure takes a hit. The family as a unit—and here we mean enduring marriages, low divorce and cohabitation rates, high fertility—thrives best when it, and not the state, provides for its members.
This is one area in which we might have hoped for more from this Index, which in many other ways provides critically needed analysis.
Also included in the Index is a section entitled “thematic in-depth analysis,” which includes a study on intergenerational solidarity and one on the family in the legal system. Following the conclusion are detailed individual country profiles and further appendices. All of these sections contribute more useful information to this study.
In the conclusion, the researchers again point to the tension mentioned above:
Therefore, the invitation to readers of this report on looking at the data is to go beyond the temptation to reduce family well-being to economic resources and services, factors that are undoubtedly necessary but not sufficient. As this Index highlights, even when economic and contextual resources are readily available, the structural dimension of the family remains moderate, if not low. This leads us to hypothesize that family support should focus on “other” resources, of a more reticular and associative nature, capable of enhancing the social dimension of the family.
Finally, the researchers close with the reminder that “in order to support the family properly, it is fundamental to not give up defining it: the family is a basic human social group; its specific nature lies in reciprocal relations between genders and generations thus transforming the family into a social institution.”
Indeed, and well said.
Nicole M. King is the Managing Editor of The Natural Family.