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Families and Social Policy

Social policy, the actions and plans of government agencies, affects families in many ways including policies on marriage, childcare, education, housing, crime, and taxes.

Social policy, a government plan or action aimed at improving society, has a significant effect on the social institution of the family. Governments put in place laws and policies that reflect the values of their society, but these policies can also influence patterns of behavior. Social policies related to health and social services, welfare benefits, education, foster care, and adoption affect how families function within a society. For example, laws and policies related to breastfeeding in public, mandatory education, or tax credits for families with children impact the family as a social institution.

Many social policies related to labor and employment impact the family. For example, policies in support of equal pay, flexible work schedules, childcare, and maternity and paternity leave shape social patterns related to who works, how people work, and when and how people start families. Countries with policies supporting the family structure tend to have lower rates of violence and higher rates of life satisfaction overall.

Weeks of Legally Mandated Maternity Leave around the World

In countries around the world, mothers are legally guaranteed a certain amount of maternity leave. Some countries guarantee paternity leave as well. The United States is the only high-income nation without mandated maternity leave.
Laws and policies related to same-sex marriage also impact the family as a social institution. In the United States, same-sex marriage was legalized throughout the country in 2015. This reflects social and cultural developments about the meaning of family, gender, homosexuality, and equality. Policies, practices, and laws shaping adoption are also influenced by social and cultural trends. In the United States, adoption once meant a firm and total cutoff between biological parents and children given up for adoption. However, people who are adopted, as well as those who grow up in foster care, frequently seek out blood relatives as adults. Some laws, policies, and practices in the United States recognize and support the tendency of adopted and foster children to consider making contact and reestablishing ties with biological family members. Some adoption agencies facilitate open adoptions, where biological parents can have some contact or relationship with children they give up for adoption. In some states, children who are adopted have some rights to learn about their biological families. Some agencies and organizations that support children in foster care work to identify and locate children’s biological relatives. In many cases, children form a connection with these family members, allowing them to move out of foster care or to benefit from having healthy, supportive family relationships. These trends in marriage, adoption, and foster care reflect an expanded understanding of family and kinship in American society.