What Is a Family?
thorny question for many policymakers is, “What is a family?” Definitions abound, but consensus does not. How we define the family is often hotly-debated because the definition has significant consequences in people’s lives. Government agencies often have to define what a family is in order to determine who benefits from their program and who does not. Towns or cities often have to define families in developing zoning and housing regulations. Family definitions can have a bearing on access to such resources as health and life insurance, educational, recreational, and mental health services. Furthermore, definitions sometimes convey societal beliefs about what is “normal” and “acceptable” and thus, by implication, what is “deviant” or socially sanctioned. In this section of the briefing report, we will begin by summarizing the diversity of American families. Then we will review three definitions proposed in the scholarly literature and the consequences of each. Finally, we will take a historical look at how the family is defined in Wisconsin law.
Do We Know a Family When We See One?
The family is said to be universal because it is found in more societies than any other social institution, including the economy, the state, religious communities, and educational organizations. Yet this universal term conveys a variety of images. For some, it may bring to mind the work of American painter Norman Rockwell white picket fences, and freckled boys and girls playing under the watchful eye of doting parents and community elders. The word family may mean something quite different to an African-American, an American Indian, or a southeast Asian refugee, a stepparent, a foster parent, a landlord, or a zoning board member. One’s image of family may reflect one’s position in the family life cycle ranging from a childless couple to the “sandwich generation” with both young and old dependents to the “empty nest” stage. In Figure B, Ooms and Preister (1988) categorize the variety of families that dot the landscape according to socioeconomic characteristics, structures, family life cycle stage, and different family contexts including racial, ethnic, and cultural settings. In a country like ours that prides itself on being a melting pot, coming up with a universal definition of the family is no easy task.
How Is the Family Defined?
The definitions of family are as diverse as families themselves and the situations they are found in. Viewed simply, the definitions can be categorized in two ways:
What Is a Family?
Figure B FAMILY TYPES
Education level Income level
Family Life Cycle Stage
No children Early formation infants and pre-schoolers With school-age children With children in transition to adulthood With no dependent children With elderly dependents Elderly with adult children/grandchildren “Sandwich generation” mid-life adults with both young and old dependents Families with a member with disabilities
Couple without dependent children married unmarried (cohabiting) Single-parent family household never-married separated divorced widowed Two-parent family household not married first marriage second/third marriage Foster family Adoptive family “Estranged” family Nuclear/extended/ multigenerational household None/one/two/multiple wage earners
Ethnic/racial/cultural Religious Informal social network (friends & neighbors) Relationships to community Rural/suburban/urban
*Adapted from A Strategy for Strengthening Families: Using Family Criteria in Policymaking and Program Evaluation. T. Ooms & S. Preister, Eds. A consensus report of the Family Criteria Task Force. Washington, DC: Family Impact Seminar, 1988.
Wisconsin Family Impact Seminars
(1) structural definitions that specify who’s in the family and who’s out according to certain characteristics of family members, and (2) functional definitions that specify the...
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