Executive summary

Over the past decades, Spanish families have become smaller and less ‘traditional’ in their composition. With one of the highest fertility rates in Europe well into the second half of the 20th century, Spain now has the lowest rate in the region, at 1.3 in 2018 compared to the EU average of 1.5. Many young couples wait to have a child, in part because finding stable employment and housing can be difficult for them, but also because of fear of financial difficulties or an unsatisfactory work-life balance. Simultaneously, the legalisation of divorce and social acceptance of co-habitation has led to more diverse family compositions, with a decline in the share of children born to married parents and an increase in the number of children living in single-parent or reconstituted families. For instance, the share of new-borns with unmarried parents nearly tripled from 18% in 2000 to 47% in 2018.

With an increase of more than 50% in the share of mothers who are employed over the past two decades, the dual earner family model has now become dominant in Spain. Even so, the share of children under the age of 15 living in households where all adults are working remains, at 59% in 2018, slightly below the EU and OECD averages (62% and 61% respectively) and substantially below the shares observed in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden. Women continue to have more responsibilities in unpaid care and housework than men, but there are indications that these patterns have started to change in line with the increased availability of paternity leave and joint physical custody regulation.

While family law has evolved quite strongly alongside these societal changes, family policy – i.e. the combination of benefits, services, tax breaks and leave arrangements that support family members in raising and providing care to minor children and other dependent persons – has undergone some changes but few major reforms. The only national legal framework on family policy currently in place is the 2003 Law regarding the protection of large families. Existing family policies already acknowledge situations of additional needs of certain family types, but they often rely on the adjustment of individual laws rather than on a comprehensive view of all families. There is no basic common definition of a family unit for granting social benefits or tax breaks, and the rules to assess the financial capacities of families diverge across benefits and services. A new legal framework for family policies would help to address these inconsistencies, while acknowledging that each family has different needs.

Across many dimensions, people in Spain benefit from well-being outcomes that are similar to or better than the OECD average. Yet, a significant share of the population struggles with insufficient income, unemployment and high housing prices. These challenges are particularly affecting households with children, which tend to be more vulnerable than other population groups. Indeed, childhood poverty is very high in Spain compared to most other OECD countries, with nearly one in five children (19.3%) living in relative income poverty compared to an OECD average of 12.9%. A recent cross-OECD analysis shows that improvements in the rates and quality of parental employment would go a long way in reducing the poverty risk among Spanish children. However, family policies should also be strengthened in various ways, including through the introduction of a universal child benefit, an increase in social spending targeted at low-income families, adjustments to the child support scheme in case of divorce, and integrated family services with low barriers.

Changes in several other policy areas, including parental leave, working time, ECEC, primary education, out-of-school-hours care, family mediation and positive parenting programmes, would make it easier for families to combine work and family life and improve their well-being. For instance, while Spanish maternity and in particular paternity leave entitlements are comparatively generous, the absence of a paid parental leave can force parents to return to work before having secured formal childcare for their baby. Early childhood care and education (ECEC) is already near-universal for children from age three onwards, but parents of younger children may still struggle in finding affordable options for formal care of their children. In addition, quality and affordable after-school programmes not only allow parents to combine work and family responsibilities, but can also foster equal opportunities for children who may otherwise not have access to the same enriching cultural and sports activities and help with homework as other children do. The overall goal should be to offer families a continuum of support from birth up until adulthood and help parents meet their work and family goals.

Since different ministries and government levels in Spain are responsible for policies that affect families, family policy could become more impactful if different relevant actors, including the state, regional and local governments, service providers and advocacy organisations align their policy instruments. Various co-ordination and co-operation bodies operate in Spain, but their performance needs to be improved. In addition, while laws and policy programmes sometimes include monitoring and evaluation requirements, these are not always carried out as planned nor entirely independently. By monitoring and evaluating reform implementation and impact in a more systematic manner, future policies could be improved and may help to make family policy more objective and evidence-based.

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