An intergenerational perspective of the coronavirus crisis and the role of family policies
The coronavirus pandemic has led to the biggest shock to the world economy and the labour market in decades. The ensuing crisis has shown the weaknesses of the welfare system and has exacerbated pre- existing inequalities in income and living conditions, labour market vulnerabilities and the prevalence of domestic violence.
The books reviewed here offer complementary views on the role of family policies during economic downturns. In An intergenerational audit for the UK Laura Gardiner and co-authors provide a quantitative analysis of the impact of the coronavirus crisis on living conditions in a Western advanced economy, the UK.
Their analysis shows how the current crisis has put the welfare system to the test and underlines the importance of family policies such as child benefits and family support.
On the other hand, Handbook of Family Policy reviews the main family policies across countries and time. It also suggests policy interventions that could alleviate the effects of the current crisis on families.
Laura Gardiner and co-authors provide an analysis of the initial phase of the covid-19 crisis across different age groups in the UK. The study focuses on the effect of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown on living standards in four domains: I) labour conditions; II) housing and security; III) taxes, benefits, and household income; and IV) wealth and assets. The analysis also covers the impact of the coronavirus crisis on health and life satisfaction. In addition, the study discusses the changes in living conditions the pandemic has brought about through time, across generations and within age cohorts. Each chapter contains a study of one of these domains supported by quantitative information. The authors identify a specific topic of interest within each domain which they explore in depth providing a “spotlight” analysis of what is changing in Britain today.
After reading the study, one is left with the certainty that no one is exempt from the effects of the coronavirus crisis. The elderly population is particularly vulnerable to the virus. Consequently, they have suffered the largest increase in mortality rates, acute mental health deterioration and a sharp decrease in life satisfaction. On the other hand, the working age population has suffered a severe negative labour shock due to lockdown measures. Many workers have lost their job or remain in furlough.The youngest and oldest workers are struggling the most.
Regarding mental health and life satisfaction, the authors describe a similar U-shaped relationship between the negative impact of the pandemic and age. The largest deterioration in mental health and life satisfaction is concentrated at the extremes of the age distribution.
The elderly suffer from isolation due to social distancing whereas the young worry about their truncated life prospects. School dropout rates have fallen because the coronavirus pandemic has hit jobs in the service sector, such as retail, hospitality, arts and leisure, the hardest. These are precisely the jobs people in their late teenage years and early twenties usually take.
The last group largely affected by the crisis is composed by low income families with dependent children. The adults in these households are in their thirties and forties. These families have suffered comparatively more difficult lockdowns due to school closures and poorer housing and living conditions. These households have seen their savings dwindle during the pandemic and many of them have been forced into debt.
The book also contains detailed information on the relief programmes the British government has put in place. Three main policies have been implemented so far: the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, and a significant boost to social security benefits and tax credits.
The study shows that the distribution of government income support is fairly spread among people aged 25-55 with relatively less support for the young and the elderly. The measures have been recently extended to the end of September 2021, but there is great uncertainty about their future. To address this issue, the study makes some economic predictions – which are particularly dire for the young and the low-educated – and offers some policy recommendations that I cannot detail here but would encourage the reader to examine.
Finally, let me emphasise that An intergenerational audit for the UK shows the relevance of using an intergenerational perspective when studying living conditions. This approach is relevant for three main reasons.
First, it detects the most affected and vulnerable age groups. Secondly, it can inform policy makers as to how to design measures to address the problems identified. Thirdly, it can spot the difficulties of the welfare state to correct the pre-existing problems the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated.
A glaring absence in this study is a full discussion of the impact of the pandemic from a gender perspective. There is overwhelming evidence showing that lockdown measures and the negative labour market shock have affected women disproportionately. Given that women with children take on average more responsibilities on childcare and home- schooling than men, they have been more affected by school closures. Domestic violence has increased significantly during lockdown too. The mental health deterioration due to the pandemic is more prevalent among females than males.
Family policies should address the needs of lower income families with dependent children and of females badly hit by the pandemic. This is precisely the topic of the second book reviewed here, Handbook of Family Policy, edited by Guðný Björk Eydal and Tine Rostgaard.
Handbook of Family Policy provides an overview of contemporary research on family policies around the world. It includes the contributions of 44 scholars, and it is divided in five parts. The book opens with a review of the history of family policy research and the description of analytical concepts, theory, and methods of research. This part of the book provides an excellent guide on family policy indicators, databases, and the different conceptual approaches that have been used to study family policies across time.
Following this methodological review, the book analyses the main family policies governments and private companies have implemented. These policies include cash transfers such as family benefits, parental leave, childcare, and work-family policies in the workplace. Let me focus on two of these policies, child benefits and childcare services.
I was surprised to learn by reading the book that, despite the effectiveness of child benefits in reducing child poverty, only a few countries offer such benefits in their welfare systems. The research surveyed in the book shows that childcare is another fundamental family policy because it facilitates women’s labour participation and improves children’s cognitive and social development.
The book also provides a comparative perspective of family policies across countries. These include the widely studied traditional models of Western economies, such as the conservative welfare model of Central Europe, the Southern European model, the Nordic egalitarian model and the liberal model of the UK and the US.
The novelty here is that the book offers a wider than usual geographical coverage and includes newer and valuable family policies implemented in South Africa, India, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and East Asia.
The last part of the book focuses on the impact of family policies, especially cash transfers and taxes, on child poverty, parenthood, and family well-being. It stresses the importance of objective indicators to measure well-being and the need to reinforce existing mechanisms to fight child poverty. This is also the most propositive part of the book. It addresses future challenges for policy making and research. Two of the aspects covered are of special interest. The first is how policies can support families during natural and human- made disasters. The second is the need for a gender perspective in the design of family policies. Both aspects are particularly relevant in the current circumstances.
The coronavirus crisis has shown the importance of income support policies such as job retention schemes and social security benefits including family policies. In An intergenerational audit for the UK, Laura Gardiner and co-authors provide an analysis on the effects of the pandemic in the UK, a country with a liberal model of family policy. Handbook of Family Policy describes alternative models of family policies and provides directions to reform family policies that could prove useful to face the challenges that the coronavirus crisis has created.