Family Policy: Constructed Solutions to Family Problems


Shirley L. Zimmerman

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: Laying the Foundations

    Part II: From Attitudes to Constructed Solutions to Family Problems

    Part III: Policy Frameworks: What Accounts for the Policy Solutions That are Constructed to Family Problems?

    Part IV: Family Frameworks: Implications for Families and Their Well-Being

    Part V: Summary, Conclusions, and Policy Practice Implications

  • Dedication

    To my family


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    There is no such thing as a fixed policy, because policy like all organic entities is always in the making.

    Attributed to Lord Salisbury—M. R. D. Foot (1956), British Foreign Policy Since 1898–9

    Mapping the Book

    This book is about family policy, a topic that fascinates and has fascinated me for a very long time. Family policy is concerned with the problems of families in relation to society, and its goal is the advancement of family well-being. The book is divided into five parts. Part I lays the foundation for the discussion of family policy and is comprised of five chapters. The emergence of family policy discourse and knowledge-producing activities is the focus of Chapter 1. The chapter also includes definitions of family policy and a brief historical review of family policy developments in the United States. Chapter 2 discusses family policy discourse and how language is used in the construction (or the linkage of concepts and ideas) of family problems and their solutions. The problems of families are paramount themes in family policy discourse and are discussed in Chapter 3. Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the many and changing meanings of family; family values in family policy discourse in the context of family change; and attitudes toward government, families, and the economy as central to the construction of policy solutions to family problems.

    Part II consists of three chapters and focuses on policy solutions actually constructed to address family problems at state and federal levels—mostly during the 1990s. Some constructions are included from the 1980s for comparison. Chapter 6 deals with family policies constructed at the federal level for selected years in the 1980s and 1990s. Chapter 7 focuses on the congressional debates of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) (Defense of Marriage Act, 1996) that reveal the attitudes embedded in its construction as both problem and solution. Chapter 8 focuses on policy solutions constructed in the 1990s by six states with different political cultures (political culture refers to the attitudes held by a population toward government and other people). Data from the 1980s are included for three of the states for comparative purposes.

    Part III, consisting of six chapters, focuses on policy frameworks or perspectives that readers can use as guides for policy practice. The different frameworks included in the discussion are the institutional framework (Chapter 9), the rational choice framework (Chapter 10), incremental theory and game theory (Chapter 11), political culture theory (Chapter 12), interest group theory and elite theory (Chapter 13), and systems theory (Chapter 14). My intent is to familiarize readers with a range of policy frameworks and theories that I have found useful in trying to understand how policy solutions are constructed and what may account for some constructions and not others. Please note that I use the words conceptual frameworks, theoretical perspectives, theories, and models interchangeably. A model is a pattern of conceptual relationships that in some way imitates, duplicates, or analogously illustrates a pattern of relationships observed in the empirical (real) world (Theodorson & Theodorson, 1969). Broadly, a theory consists of a set of interrelated propositions that provides a conceptual scheme for explaining human behavior and other phenomena. You, the readers, can pick and choose from among the frameworks presented here the one that best fits your questions about a given family policy, either as it is being formulated or constructed or after. You do not have to learn all the frameworks at once, but by knowing where to find them in this book, you can return to them when you want to use one of them to better understand a particular policy problem.

    Throughout the book, I provide many examples from newspaper articles to show how the frameworks can be used to analyze the processes involved in constructing policy solutions to family problems. You can do the same thing. Having one or two frameworks in mind, as you are watching TV or attending public meetings or hearings or reading the newspaper, think about the concepts associated with that framework in relation to what you are observing and apply them to your observations, using the words—the concepts—associated with the framework so that they become easy for you to say. In class, I have four or five students break into groups to analyze news articles I have selected for analysis. Invariably, students find the exercise fun and enlightening. At the end of the sessions, the groups submit a summary of their analyses—based on the framework assigned for that day. Everyone is expected to participate in the discussions and to come prepared, having read the assigned framework chapter and accompanying article. Students take turns with various group roles: chair, recorder, observer, and so on. Because so many of the articles in the New York Times report on the processes involved in the construction of policy solutions to family problems as well as the substance of such solutions, I tend to rely on the Times for examples. Even if you are not a subscriber, you can access it via the Internet. But other news sources will do as well.

    Part IV of the book focuses on family frameworks that can be used to assess the implications of constructed solutions to family problems for family well-being. It consists of three chapters that include family systems theory and exchange and choice theory (Chapter 15), symbolic interactionism and family stress theory (Chapter 16), and conflict, feminist, and cultural theories (Chapter 17). Each of these conceptual frameworks contains concepts—ideas, language, words—that you can use for thinking about the implications of constructed solutions to family problems. Again, you do not have to learn all the frameworks at first or all at once, but having a range of frameworks from which to choose and knowing where to find them when you want or need to use them will give you flexibility in assigning meaning to family problems and their solutions.

    Again, I include many examples of the major concepts associated with the different family frameworks in the text. And as with the policy frameworks, I select news articles for students to analyze in small groups in class that are illustrative of the different family frameworks. Students break into small groups to analyze the news article that is illustrative of both a family problem and a policy solution or a family problem in need of a solution, find examples from the article that illustrate the concepts associated with the framework, and base their conclusions on evidence drawn from the news article. In other words, students are expected to assign meaning to the news article in terms of family well-being based on the framework in use for that day, drawing on the news article for evidence. The application of the frameworks to real life encourages students to think conceptually about family policy in relation to family problems and, at the same time, to learn about the issues that constitute and confront family policy. I design all assignments and exams to reinforce conceptual thinking about the policy/family connection and to transform students into a public interested in and informed about family policy and with an appreciation of the connections between family policies and their own lives.

    Part V consists of just two chapters. Chapter 18 sums up the discussion in the context of postmodernism and the globalization of the economy, and Chapter 19 offers some suggestions for family policy practice, using the policy frameworks as guides. Here, much depends on your particular role and position in the policy structure, but at the very least, you as citizens have a role to play in this process if only by engaging in family policy discourse. Again, some of the policy frameworks can give you insights into that role—and the language for understanding and performing it. The same applies to the family frameworks, which provide the language for understanding the goal and substance of policy efforts.

    Some of you may wonder about the inclusion of so many frameworks in the book, perhaps finding the range overwhelming. Speaking out of my own experience, when I was a student, I was not taught to think conceptually and therefore did not have the language for engaging in discourse about family problems and policies—at least not beyond the average layperson. Once I learned about the frameworks, my ability to analyze and interpret family policies from a family perspective increased enormously. The frameworks allowed me to not only place my observations in a larger context but also to assign meaning to my observations in ways I had not known before. Moreover, they heightened my interest in family policy—and in other subject matters as well. I hope they do the same for you.

    I have placed the overall discussion in the context of postmodernism, because just as postmodernism emphasizes language and meaning, my discussion here does too. Some of you may find this material confusing or think it obscures more than it enlightens. The language of postmodernism is different, but like the frameworks that form a large part of the text, the language of postmodernism is sensitizing; it can sensitize you to developments that may be unsettling at worst or baffling at best. This is an exciting time to be thinking about family policy and engaged in its discourse. It is the beginning of a new decade, a new century, a new millennium—and also a new presidential era. There probably is no better time to learn about family policy and its goal of family well-being.

    At this point, I would like to thank three anonymous reviewers, two of whom provided very detailed and helpful suggestions for clarifying what I am trying to communicate to you. I took their suggestions seriously and incorporated many of them. I do not know who they are, but I would like them to know how much I appreciate the time and thought they gave to their reviews of the draft they read of the book.

    Thank you, again, Pete (my spouse), for your support and understanding of my single-mindedness in working to complete the project, especially in the face of time pressures for manuscript submission. Also thank you, Jim Brace-Thompson, editor, and Sage Publications for giving me a way of engaging in family policy discourse and sharing my ideas with others. And thank you to my colleagues in Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota for listening to my complaints and commiserating with me as I worked on the book. And of course, thank you to my family—my husband Pete, my children, children-in-law, grandchildren, extended family, and special friends who have made me appreciate what family and friends are all about.

  • Afterword

    If readers are still confused about the meaning of postmodernism, they have only to consider the 2000 presidential election, the ambiguity, uncertainty, and ambivalence characterizing its results being the very hallmarks of postmodernism. Although Al Gore had won the popular vote, it was the electoral vote that mattered, as, we all learned, it does in all presidential elections. The difference between the 2000 presidential election and most other such elections was the closeness of the electoral vote and the ambiguities surrounding the election process itself, particularly in the state of Florida, where the outcome of the election remained highly uncertain long after the election was over. In the end, George W. Bush prevailed and became the next and 43rd president of the United States.

    As to what George W. Bush's presidency might mean for families and family policy, you, the readers, will have to judge for yourselves, ideally by assessing the family implications of his proposals and the legislation he signs off on and using one of the family frameworks presented in this book to do so. We can assume, given earlier discussion about the processes involved in the making of family policy, that radical departures from existing policies are highly unlikely, especially in the context of the closeness of the election, the 50/50 party split in the Senate, and the almost 50/50 party split in the House. On the basis of his speeches during the presidential campaign, however, George W. Bush's policy approach to families is likely to be more implicit than explicit, especially when compared to what Al Gore's approach might have been had he prevailed in the election. Whereas Gore mentioned family and family-related words 29 times in his acceptance speech for his party's nomination for president, Bush used such words only 11 times in his acceptance speech for his nomination for president, not counting references to his family of origin and family of procreation.

    That language is important in mirroring and shaping people's cognitive structures, that is, how they think and what they do in terms of family policy, was illustrated in a December 2000 discussion about a highly controversial issue, school vouchers. Indeed, Senator Trent Lott, Senate majority leader, ventured to remark in that discussion that the word voucher was part of the problem in addressing problems related to the education of the nation's children (Wilgoren, 2000). A linguistic cue, vouchers involve the use of public money for private school tuition. As a consequence of the strong emotional responses the term evokes, school voucher advocates considered changing their strategy to stage a broader philosophical attack on the way public education has been run in this country for a century and avoiding use of the term voucher, which they said was loaded. Thus far, studies on the effects of vouchers on student performance and their impact on local public schools—have produced mixed results (which, parenthetically, like the election, is also in keeping with postmodernism).

    Armed with knowledge of the family and policy frameworks and the history of American social and family policy in the United States and the values that policy choices such as school vouchers and similar changes would reflect, you, the readers, will understand what is at stake in issues advocates would like to obscure, and act accordingly.

    January 2001


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    Name Index

    About the Author

    Shirley L. Zimmerman is Professor-Emeritus, Family Social Science, at the University of Minnesota, where she taught courses on family policy, family policy research, and family policy from an international perspective. She is the author of Understanding Family Policy: Theoretical Approaches (1988, 1st ed.; 1995, 2nd ed.) and Family Policies and Family Well-Being: The Role of Political Culture (1992). She also is the author of numerous articles dealing with family policy and related issues appearing in academic and professional journals. Her research focuses on policy choices related to families, the factors that influence such choices, and the outcomes of such choices for families.

    She has served as consultant to state and local social agencies in the planning and development of educational programs for professional staff, and she has served in a leadership capacity on numerous local, state, and national task forces and committees. Earlier in her professional career, she was actively engaged in child advocacy and in advocating programs to meet the needs of children and their families. She is a former chair of the Minnesota Governor's Council on Families and Children. She was a postdoctoral fellow in the Family Impact Analysis Training program sponsored by the Minnesota Family Study Center at the University of Minnesota.

    She is married, has three sons, one daughter, three daughters-in-law, one son-in-law, six grandsons, and one granddaughter.

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