Toronto Star

Friday, January 29, 1999

Europe favours families

Parents get more government help overseas: Report

By Laurie Monsebraaten
Toronto Star Social Policy Reporter

Parents in Europe get more government help than parents in Canada, according to an international study to be released today.

To make matters worse, most Canadian mothers work full-time, while many European mothers do not.

The comparative survey of eight Western countries was conducted by the Canadian Policy Research Networks Inc., an Ottawa think-tank. It shows that, unlike Canada, European countries have a wide range of measures to support families and children.

Family policies in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden include benefits for part-time workers, flexible working hours, extensive parental leave, family leave, child care, allowances, tax benefits and income support.

Meanwhile, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States generally leave it up to parents to choose how they want to balance their work and family life. And they expect parents to deal with the difficulties of those choices privately.

Canada is second only to the United States in its ambivalence toward parents with young children, according to the study. Family policy in the United Kingdom is somewhat more advanced than Canada, but lags behind the European countries.

``Because we live next to the United States, we tend to use that model without looking further abroad,'' said Judith Maxwell, president of the social and economic policy research organization.

``The purpose of this study is to show that there are different models out there,'' she said. ``It's important that every country think through what model it is applying to make sure it's consistent with its basic value system.''

Public polling shows that Canadians value investing in the next generation, Maxwell said in an interview yesterday.

``If that's what we want to achieve, then do we have the policy structure in place to make that happen? If we did want to review that policy structure, here are some models.''

Questions about how much money a country is prepared to invest, where it will be spent and where the money will come from - government, employer or family - are all part of building a family policy model, she added.

``What we have provided is a menu of models that I think really helps to inform the debate,'' she said.

In most countries studied, there was a strong consensus that both spouses should contribute to household income. And yet a majority of men and women in all countries believe that the family suffers if both spouses work. And most worry about the impact on preschool children.

``The key difference between Canada and many of these countries is that because of the consensus on the role that the state should play in supporting families, they have been able to move ahead on policies that support families,'' researcher Kathy O'Hara said.

But the lack of public consensus on how families should balance work and family responsibilities shouldn't lead to policy paralysis, the report argues.

Public opinion in this area is equally mixed in France, Norway and even Sweden, the study found. And yet those countries responded by implementing a wide range of options for families.

This is perhaps the ``the most important lesson for Canada,'' the report notes.

``Rather than ambivalence leading to standstill in the development of any family policy, it led to a diversity of policy.''

`Because we live next to the United States, we tend to use that model without looking further abroad.'
- Judith Maxwell

Canada needs to start working on a large and flexible range of options to meet the needs of families in different circumstances and with different values and behaviours, the report concludes.

``There is unlikely to be a `one size fits all' family policy that will meet the needs of all or perhaps even most families in Canada,'' it says.

Some families prefer to have a parent at home when children are young and want government support for a stay-at-home parent. Others would prefer help paying for child care so they can work.

Some parents strongly support formal, regulated child care, while others prefer child care at home. Some may want to work, but may prefer part-time work, flexible hours or parental leave options.

But first, Canadians need ``a commitment to allocate resources to children and families and consensus on the need for government to actively support families,'' the study concludes.

The study is the first in a series of research reports looking into how governments might best improve outcomes for Canadian children.

Last spring, Maxwell's group released a national poll that revealed that 92 per cent of Canadians want ``programs like child care or parental leaves to help families balance work and family responsibilities.''

The survey also found that 61 per cent believe Canada spends ``too little'' on children compared to seniors, the environment and defence.

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