OECD releases "first ever" report on families

Carolyn Moynihan
28 Apr 2011
Reproduced with Permission

The OECD, an alliance of richer countries, released its "first ever report on family well-being" this week, according to a press release. Considering that it has existed for 50 years, one wants to know what took it so long. Hopefully, this step means that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development now realises that a sound economy depends ultimately on the health of the family unit.

Doing Better for Families says that families with children are more likely to be poor today than in previous decades, when the poorest in society were more likely to be pensioners. More people are childless and more couples with children are both in paid work.

The press release goes on to talk about family benefits, "change" in the family (fewer children, non-marriage, divorce), the rise in female higher education and employment, the need for men to help more in the home, childcare, family-friendly workplaces -- in short, all the familiar trends.

It is interesting, however, that major media today have published an AP story about the report that highlights its figures on family breakdown ("change"):

One in four children in the United States is being raised by a single parent - a percentage that has been on the rise and is higher than other developed countries, according to a report released Wednesday.

Of the 27 industrialized countries studied by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. had 25.8 percent of children being raised by a single parent, compared with an average of 14.9 percent across the other countries.

Ireland was second (24.3 percent), followed by New Zealand (23.7 percent). Greece, Spain, Italy and Luxemborg had among the lowest percentages of children in single-parent homes.

There is a huge challenge in those figures, and it is not clear that the OECD's main recommendations to governments will address it. These are:

The first chapter of the report (the only one free to the public) is called Families are changing and contains material on family structure and child poverty. It notes as "a particular worry that in most OECD countries, poverty risks have shifted over the past 20 years towards families with children…" A major reason for this is the steady increase in sole parent households.

"The economic vulnerability of families is linked to parents' incapacity to reconcile employment and parenthood," says the report. Joblessness is the main cause of poverty, but, of course, that is more likely where there is only one parent, usually the mother. And although the report refrains from any value judgements -- other than the assumption that poverty is evil -- it does acknowledge that two parents are better than one:

"Given that joblessness greatly increases the chances of a household being poor, couple households can act as a protection for children against poverty as such households are less likely to be jobless."

Unfortunately, projections up to 2025-2030 suggest that in almost all countries sole parent households will continue to increase both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of all households with children.

Austria, Netherlands, Switzerland and United States are the countries expecting the lowest increases in sole-parent families (8 to 10%). Germany stands out as the one exception with a projected decrease in sole-parent numbers of 16% by 2025 - the effect of a rise in divorce and separations being unlikely to substantially mitigate that of declining numbers of children.

On the other hand, some countries will feel the effect of this trend much more:

For example in Australia, Japan and New Zealand sole-parent families' share of all family households with children could reach well over 30% (up from 28%, 22% and 31% respectively in the mid-2000s). By contrast, in Austria, Germany and Switzerland shares are expected to range between 17% and 19%, showing little change since the mid-2000s.

Cash benefits for families already make up more than 40 per cent of all public spending in most OECD countries. The report urges better provision for those with elevated poverty risk, such as sole parent and jobless households.

There's a lot more to this report, but indications are that it works around the fact of family breakdown rather than addressing it as the main thing that needs changing.

You can check out "Five family facts" about your country here.