Teaching Family Policy – Definitions & Dimensions

Students and faculty alike often struggle with what “family policy” is and what it is not. Denise Skinner of the University of Wisconsin-Stout details below definitions that she uses to help students understand what is within and outside the parameters of the field.


  • Public Policy
    Social Policy
    Family Policy
  • Family policy is fundamentally concerned about the family as the basic social institution

Family Policy as:

  • A perspective – for understanding and thinking about the actions of government and consequences of these actions for families
  • A process – of collective decision making
  • A field of activity – the wide range of family-related programs that result from policymaking (e.g. family preservation, family and medical leave, income supports)

Family Policy

  • Is a course of action directed at the family (including marriage and kinship) with the intent of guiding, influencing, determining:
  • The structures it assumes

    The functions it performs

    The processes of change

    The behavior of its members

Types of Family Policy

  • Explicit – those policies in which the consequences for families are deliberately structured
  • Implicit – those that have nonfamilial objectives but which nonetheless affect families

Explicit Family Policy is directed at:

  • Family Composition: Childbirth, marriage, divorce, adoption, foster care
  • Economic Support: Families’ abilities to provide for their dependents’ basic needs (food, shelter, health and clothing)
  • Development of Children: Parents’ ability to nurture, rear, educate children
  • Family Care: Families’ ability to care for members and relatives who are chronically ill, frail, or have disabilities
  • Partner Relationships: Families’ ability to foster and maintain committed, stable partner relationships

Policymaking Arenas

  • Level of Government
    Local (county, city, school board)
  • Branch of Government

Dimensions of Family Policy

  • Policy to maintain the status quo or as a force of change?
  • Policies for family groups and systems for individuals?
  • Policies that see the family (children) as a public or private institution?
  • Policies that are targeted or universal?
  • Policies at the macro-level (economic support, housing, etc.) or micro-level (care giving, nurturing)?
  • Policies that promote treatment strategies or preventive ones?
  • Policy at the federal, state and/or local level?


Eshleman, R. (1991). The family: An introduction. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Jacob, F. & Davies, M. (1994). More than kissing babies? Current child and family policy in the United States. Westport, CT: Auburn House

Minnesota Coalition for Family Policy (1999). What is family policy. St. Paul, MN: Author.

Zimmerman, S. (1988). Understanding family policy: Theoretical approaches. Newberry Park, CA: Sage.

Zimmerman, S. (1992). Family policies and family well-being: The role of political culture. Newberry Park, CA: Sage.