3. Areas for improvement in Spain’s family policy

Family support in Spain is comprehensive but fragmented and insufficient. It is comprehensive in the sense that there exist a variety of benefits, services and legal provisions to cover different material and other needs, including measures to allow parents to combine their family and work responsibilities. It is insufficient in the sense that most family-related benefits provide low amounts, are means-tested and tied to certain conditions related to the structure of the family. It is fragmented in the sense that the terms and conditions can vary from one tax or benefit to another as well as across regions. This fragmentation has given rise to a system of protection where most measures are unavailable to many, where certain services and benefits such as after-school care and family leave do not meet the needs of working parents, and where a comparatively large share of children are at risk of poverty.

Drawing on the review of current family outcomes and policies in Spain of the preceding chapters, the goal of this chapter is to identify areas where changes could most meaningfully strengthen family support policy. First, attention is paid to the design of an updated legal framework, which is instrumental to the implementation of a new family policy. Next, the focus shifts to substantive goals of improving family well-being through reducing child poverty and making family life easier for all. Finally, the third aspect that needs attention is how co-operation across different policy areas and government levels can be improved, and how monitoring and evaluation instruments of family support measures can be set up. Concrete reform proposals based on these identified areas and Part II’s review of good practices are presented in Part III of the report.

Over time, the legal framework for family policy has adjusted to some alterations in the structure of the ‘typical’ Spanish family. However, these adjustments contributed to inconsistencies in the treatment of families across different taxes and benefits, and do not yet reflect the full diversity of families. This section will first summarise some of the trends in family diversification, followed by a brief overview of the features of the current legal treatment of families. It finally proposes some ideal characteristics of a new legal framework for families.

Over the past decades, Spanish families have on average become smaller and less ‘traditional’ in their composition and division of labour.

First, very low fertility rates are one of the contributing factors to a lower-than-average share of large families. Women in Spain tended to have among the highest number of children well into the second half of the 20th century in comparison to other EU countries. Today, at 1.3, the Spanish total fertility rate is the lowest in the EU, where the average is 1.5. Many couples wait to have a child, in part because finding stable employment and housing can be difficult for young people in Spain, but also because of fear for financial difficulties or an unsatisfactory work-life balance. This postponement, in turn, is one of the factors that contribute to a divergence between the desired and realised fertility rate. A higher share of Spanish households include at least one minor child than in the EU on average (32.5% and 28.8% respectively in 2019). However, the average number of children that live in these households are lower.

Second, while a large majority of children continue to live with two parents, the share of children born to unmarried parents is rising. In 2018, more than 80% of minors were living either with both of their parents or within a reconstituted family, a share that is basically identical to the OECD and EU averages. Compared to 2004, the proportion of minor children living with married parents declined by 7 percentage points and the share living with cohabiting or a single parent rose by 4 and 7 percentage points, respectively. In addition, the share of new-borns born to unmarried parents tripled from 17.7% in 2000 to 47.3% in 2018. The divorce rate also increased for many decades but recently declined, likely because fewer people were getting married to begin with. In more than one-third of divorces with children, both parents now continue to have joint physical custody. The majority of Spanish respondents to different opinion surveys voiced liberal attitudes towards cohabitation, unmarried parenthood and same-sex partners as parents.

Third, the two-earner model has become more prevalent in Spanish families, though still less so than elsewhere. In 1999, a third of under-15-year-olds were living in a household where all adults were working. By 2018, this situation applied to nearly six in ten (58.6%), which remains slightly below the OECD (60.7%) and EU (61.5%) averages. In the majority of dual-earner households with children in Spain, both parents work full-time, while in some other countries including the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom, it is much more common that one of the partners works part-time. Nearly three-quarters of children living with a single parent live with a working parent, while across the EU and OECD the share is slightly lower at around seven in ten. The age of the youngest child and the mothers’ education level have less of an impact on maternal employment rates in Spain than is the case than in most EU countries, but the number of children has a larger impact. The growth in the share of working mothers occurred concurrently with an increase in positive attitudes towards maternal employment. Fathers have increased the time they spent on household and family tasks, but according to the latest available data from 2009, men were still spending less than half as much time on unpaid work as women were.

Family policy refers to the aggregate of benefits, services, tax breaks and leave arrangements that support family members in raising and providing care to minor children and other dependent persons. Laws do not only define the scope of these transfers and services, but importantly also which households count as a family for the purposes of each law. The Spanish Constitution offers the basis for family support measures. In particular, public authorities are called upon to ensure the ‘social, economic and legal protection of the family’. Families are not defined by whether the parents are married or not, but a more favourable treatment of family units based on marriage (though not of children with married parents) is not necessarily unconstitutional.

Family law, in turn, defines under which conditions legal marriages and divorces occur, how custody and the division of property are handled in the case of a separation or divorce, and how cohabitating non-married couples are treated under the law. Family law has undergone an extensive liberalisation since 1981 and especially since 2005. The 2005 reforms introduced no-fault divorce on demand and allowed same-sex couples to get married under the same regime as other couples. This liberalisation halted a trend whereby more Autonomous Communities had started to recognise rights and duties of cohabitating couples. Upon marriage, more and more couples opt for the separation of property regime rather than the community property regime, which is the default regime in many Autonomous Communities. When they split up, joint physical custody of any children is now the quasi-default regime in many Autonomous Communities.

Given the importance of different policy areas such as social protection, housing, education and employment policy for family well-being, the actors in family policy range from the central, regional and local governments and administrations to non-profit organisations and even companies. At the national level, some governments have favoured advancing family policy through the adoption of comprehensive family support plans while others have aimed to introduce specific changes in areas such as parental leave, work-life reconciliation and updated social security protection for families. Many Autonomous Communities have likewise introduced frameworks for family support or family support plans.

The only national legal framework on family policy currently in place is the 2003 Law regarding the protection of large families. The definition of what constitutes a larger-than-average family has shifted over time to currently three children. The Law also grants large family status to smaller families under certain circumstances, such as families that lost a parent or with disabled members. There is no national framework on single-parent families, but there are significant references to single parenthood in other regulations (including in tax law) and several Autonomous Communities have specific provisions for single-parent families. Some Autonomous Communities have also taken steps in the direction of updating large family regulation, though the constitutionality of these changes is still up for debate. The state has so far not challenged these regional developments, likely because the Autonomous Communities’ efforts did not fundamentally question the status of the large families’ regulation as basic law or its actual scope, but have instead merely supplemented and updated it.

Existing family policies already acknowledge situations of additional needs of certain family types. In addition to the number of children and the family situation, other diversity factors point to the specific needs of support because of a parent’s or child’s disability, a parent being the victim of intimate partner violence or the particular challenges faced by families of immigrant origin or who are living in isolated rural areas. However, this acknowledgement often relies on the adjustment of individual laws rather than a comprehensive view of all families, leading to inconsistencies across policy areas. A new legal framework for family policies can address these inconsistencies, while at the same time acknowledging that each family – including those that fall into categories that suggest they may be more vulnerable – has different needs.

For a long time, family policy in Spain has been synonymous of policy for large families. But this framework leaves out many families in need of support. In part, this is because the model is based on a type of family that has become marginal. Moreover, successive legal amendments only captured particular needs, like disability within the family or prolonged adult children’s dependence. Families with a smaller number of children remain out of the general picture. Single-parent families, which are disproportionately at risk of poverty and social exclusion, also do not enjoy the same protection and support as large families.

One of the large family legal framework’s strengths is that it is firmly established in Spanish family culture and administrative practice. It is well-known by private and public actors and families. From a regulatory viewpoint, this technique is a shortcut for targeting families in need of support, even though not all large families are equally disadvantaged (or disadvantaged at all).

Regional legal developments show that updating is needed in two areas: the exclusion of unmarried parents and the handling of families’ dissolution. The situation of single-parent families with two children, who currently are granted large family status only in the case of death of the other parent, also needs further clarification in connection with the development of a legal framework for single-parents. Litigation in this area has focused on the official recognition as a large family, in particular with the operation of the title or card issued by the competent regional authorities. The Constitutional Court stressed the need to look at the large family’s factual situation when granting benefits or allowances. This position demands a revision of the current legal framework, either to align the solution with the constitutional court’s view or to provide clarification for future administrative practice.

Some regions have developed definitions of single-parent families and single-parenthood situations. But these provisions cannot affect the granting of state-based benefits or social rights. The regional regulation cannot be used to handle practical issues flowing from social or tax rules, such as assessing the legal position of the other parent or what happens with their child support obligations. However, no national general legal framework exists that states under which conditions a single-parent can have access to allowances or benefits stipulated to cope with their particular needs.

There is no basic common definition of a family unit for the purpose of granting social benefits or tax breaks. Each benefit’s regulation includes its own definition, which may be similar or may differ in some points from definitions used elsewhere. These existing differences are difficult to endorse given that most of these instruments pursue similar goals.

In addition, the treatment given to de facto couples, step-parents or different forms of foster family carers is different in several sets of rules. Parents’ marital status may influence eligibility to certain social benefits that depend on the available resources of the family unit, and can thus lead to differences in the resources that are available for children of married and unmarried parents. In some cases, a de facto partner belongs to the relevant family unit; whereas in other cases, he or she is not mentioned. For instance, joint children of cohabitating unmarried parents are treated differently from joint children of married couples or children of single-parents: in the two latter cases, the parents may enjoy tax savings from joint taxation and benefit from specific tax reductions that are denied to unmarried couples. Regarding the means-tested non-contributory unemployment subsidy, children of married and unmarried couples are treated differently insofar as for unmarried couples, the resources of the other parent are (partially) considered when he or she has economic resources but not when he or she is poor.

There is also an uneven treatment of the same family scenarios in cases of family dissolution, in particular regarding child custody arrangements or child support obligations. Relevant legal provisions and case law have increasingly promoted shared physical custody arrangements after family dissolution. However, family support regulation does not take this into account with consistent criteria. Some benefits are granted to mothers only, others to the first parent who applies and yet others to both parents in proportion to their custodial time. In cases where parents do not come to an agreement amongst themselves, the national legal framework for large families gives preference to the parent living with the children without regard to the shared physical custody arrangement in place.

Concerning blended and reconstituted families, their private law status is unclear. While the unit lives under the same roof, a minimal economic solidarity does legally exist. However, step-children do not become children of the step-parent unless he or she adopted them, and this is unlikely since adoption severs the legal link with the other parent. If the couple in a reconstituted or blended family split up, step-parents have zero liabilities towards their step-children. Regulations on tax benefits and social support treat stepfamilies unevenly. On occasion, step-parents are given equal recognition as biological or adoptive parents. However, lacking special legal reference to them, competent authorities and courts find it difficult to grant them the same treatment. The status of foster family carers was also ambiguous and was only recently improved. However, consistency demands to unify the concept used across the whole system of family protection and the relevant situation should be identified properly according to the different types of foster family care.

Different tax and benefit laws already aim at addressing the needs of specific types of families, such as single-parent families, families with disabled persons, and families where the mother was a victim of gender-based violence. But definitions of these family types do not necessarily coincide across different policy areas.

Any regulation dealing with the contours of single-parenthood as a protected situation faces the dilemma of whether to expand the concept from the status of single-parent family to the situation of single parenthood. The first concept points to a specific family structure. In contrast, the second one focuses on social risks similar to those typically linked to single-parent families, despite there is another parent responsible for the children. Some regions have gone as far as recognising as single-parent families biparental families where one of the parents is severely ill, imprisoned or unable to bear the parental responsibilities. The national legislator also chose the household’s vulnerability rather than the family structure when amending the eligibility requirements for IMV (see Art 10 RD-Act 20/2020 as amended by RD-Act 30/2020). Sticking to single-family status confines the inquiries to whether the applicant is married or in a stable de facto union and what kind of relationship has with persons living in the same household. Focusing on single parenthood situations necessarily brings the assessment of the family situation near to ordinary social diagnosis and blurs the special needs of children living in single-parent households, compared with children belonging to disadvantaged families in general.

Most family benefits are means-tested, but the rules on calculating the family financial capacity diverge among different benefits and services, and are sometimes inconsistent. Ensuring equal and fair treatment in access to public services and benefits is essential, particularly for supporting more disadvantaged families.

The divergence in assessing financial capacity arise from several sources. First, the financial threshold differs for similar allowances, partly because it is calculated using different indexes such as the minimum wage and the IPREM. Second, the factors used for the means-test are not the same for all benefits. There are differences regarding the economic unit to be considered (family based on kinship bonds, household, unidad de convivencia as defined by the corresponding provisions) and how to allocate this capacity among family members. A consistent view on which assets or rights are to be included in the calculation is lacking, including the criteria on the compatibility of a given benefit with other allowances or rights of the same kind, or with temporary situations of formal employment.

A special case in which the assessment of financial capacity is highly relevant concerns child maintenance payments, which may particularly threaten the economic well-being of single-parent family units. The solutions provided by the existing legal framework are not always consistent. Sometimes, the legal obligations of the other parent are disregarded when granting a benefit to a single-parent. More often than not, however, being the sole breadwinner depends on the proof of the other parents’ insolvency or of the impossibility of enforcing the support order, as in the means-test analysis prior to granting unemployment subsidy or regional minimum income benefits.

Regions have developed legislation or strategic plans to focus and improve family policy. In addition, some of them have introduced new benefits aimed at families raising children, for example lump-sum payments to supplement social security benefits for childbirth and adoption. Regional autonomy, however, has been primarily exercised in tax deductions. These deductions are linked to different requirements in each region, contributing to marked coverage differences across regions. They also target different family-related direct or indirect costs. As a result, certain benefits and tax treatments can vary from one Autonomous Community to the other, giving rise to potentially unequal outcomes for families in similar situations and to potential losses of benefits as families move from one region to another.

The review of the current legal framework suggests that the new general and basic state framework that better reflects family diversity would ideally have a number of characteristics. A first characteristic would be harmonised definitions of the family unit and the basic features of different types of families, to be used throughout the social protection and tax system. It would avoid current inconsistencies and gaps, clarify eligibilities for families and would be the fastest way to unify the requirements for rights and services guaranteed by basic state law. A second desirable feature would be common criteria to assess economic resources of family units. A default rule unifying the general threshold for programmes granting access to family support services or benefits would be useful and ease administrative costs. Finally, the framework could guarantee minimum protection throughout the Spanish territory with room for regional enhancements. The scope of this minimum protection could be elaborated in a dialogue between the national government, autonomous communities and other relevant stakeholders.

Policies can influence some of the dimensions that affect family well-being. Economic insecurity and poverty are immensely detrimental to personal well-being; and children who experience poverty may face additional obstacles that affect their opportunities throughout their life, contributing to an inter-generational transmission of disadvantage and poverty. A primary goal of a strong family support system should therefore be to reduce child poverty as much as possible. But economically vulnerable families are not the only ones whose well-being benefits from well thought-out policies. Rather, families of all economic and social backgrounds are likely to be better off if they can receive needed benefits and services (such as quality early childhood education and care or support in their parenting) and have access to leave and flexible working conditions. This section will first outline the extent of childhood poverty, describe the family-related transfers and tax benefits in Spain and then provide suggestions for reform areas that could contribute to a reduction in child poverty. In a second step, it will focus on policy areas that affect many families beyond those at risk of poverty, such as leave policies.

Childhood poverty is very high in Spain compared to most other OECD countries. In 2018, nearly one in five children (19.3%)1 lived in relative income poverty in Spain. This compares to an average of 12.9% across OECD countries, and is the highest rate among European OECD countries. Spain also has a larger gap between the child and overall population share at risk of poverty (5.1 percentage points) than is the case across the OECD on average (1.2 percentage points). Being exposed to income poverty is harmful to all members of a family, but it is particularly so for children. Income poverty also increases the risk that children will experience some kind of material deprivation. For example, children at risk of poverty are twice as likely to live in poor quality housing and three times as likely to not participate in leisure activities or to not eat fruit, vegetables or protein every day.

Trends in childhood poverty show a small uptick following the global financial crisis, followed by a slight decline. A recent cross-OECD analysis shows that different developments of parental employment rates and job quality are the most important factors in explaining cross-national differences in the evolution of the income of low-income families. In Spain between 2007 and 2014, a decline in the proportion of children with a working father contributed to a sharp drop in household income, as did a decline in the employment quality and lower public transfer, and to a lesser extent the increase in the share of single parent families.

Analyses of the household characteristics of children at risk of poverty back up some of the findings of the cross-national analysis and complement others:

  • Parental joblessness is an extremely important risk factor for child poverty in Spain, but parental employment does not insulate families from poverty risks as much as elsewhere: in 2018, 79.6% jobless households with at least one child were income-poor (compared to an OECD average of 64.5%); but so were 15.6% of working households (compared to an OECD average of 8.5%). While maternal employment has been on the increase for several decades, it remains below the EU and OECD averages. For those individuals who were employed, the incidence of low pay was slightly below the OECD average in 2016, but had risen relative to 2006.

  • Single-parent but also large families are at the highest risk of relative income poverty. In 2019, around one-third of large two-parent families with at least three children were at risk of poverty, as were around three in ten of single-parent families and one in eight of two-parent families with one or two children. The higher risk for single-parent and large families also exist across the EU-28 countries, but the differences are less stark than in Spain.

From the overview of childhood poverty risk factors, it is clear that improvements in the rates and quality of parental employment would go a long way in reducing the risk. The policy levers to address these factors, however, go beyond the scope of this report. The focus here lies instead on the main features of the tax-benefit system, which are described in more detail in Chapter 2. Services that can help mitigate the consequences of childhood poverty are discussed in the following section on improving the well-being of all families.

Family benefits in Spain are generally relatively modest and not universal. A number of previously existing universal benefits, such as a monetary benefit at birth, have been abolished. Today, large or single-parent families, families with a disabled mother or families with multiple birth or adoption can receive a means-tested lump-sum payment of EUR 1 000. For dependent children with a disability, social security provides a means-tested allowance that can go up to EUR 4 747 per year. Mothers (and more recently fathers if they can prove that paternity and childcare negatively affected their career progression) who have the right to a contributory social security pension receive a boost of their pension of 5, 10 and 15% if they have two, three or four or more children, respectively. The low importance of family benefits within the Spanish social security system can be seen by the low share of families who receive such benefits (5.9% compared to the OECD average of 77.0%) and the low average amounts they receive. After the abolishment of the universal birth allowance in 2010, both the share of family benefits out of all benefits received by families and the proportion of recipients in all income quintile (except the lowest one) roughly halved, from already low amounts.

Families also benefit from other social transfers that are not specifically targeted to families. These include contributory and non-contributory unemployment benefits. The contributory unemployment benefits have relatively generous net replacement rates, but their coverage is average. In addition, spouses and children who lost a parent or partner, respectively, may be eligible for survivor’s and orphan’s pensions. Low-income households can also receive regional and (since 2020) national minimum income benefits. While these are not specifically targeted at families, of the roughly 565 000 beneficiaries in March 2021, 40% were minors. Prior to the introduction of the national benefit, the coverage rate of minimum income benefits was below the OECD average, and it likely remains so: only one in ten working-age individuals at risk of poverty received the benefit, compared to one fourth of parents living with a partner or childless adults on average across the OECD.

A recently introduced advance child support payment provides modest benefits under stringent conditions in case a parent does not fulfil his or her child support payment obligations. Child support obligations are set by courts based on the age and number of children, the type of custody, the parents’ economic capacity and other factors. However, economic grounds for relieving a parent’s obligations are almost non-existent. For this and other reasons, many parents breach their obligations and enforcement is often ineffective. In cases where a low-income custodial parent has exhausted all procedural means to enforce their rights, they can receive advance payments equal to the monthly amount of set child support or EUR 100, whichever one is smaller, for up to 18 months.

While the non-contributory benefits apply to a relatively small share of the population, many more families can benefit from tax breaks. For most families, the main family-related tax advantage is the exemption of transfer payments from income taxes – including social security maternity and paternity benefits, family benefits, child support and minimum income benefits. For married families, the option of filing jointly can also lead to a lower tax burden; an option that is not open to unmarried families. The per-child minimum personal and family income that is not taxed rises with the number of children, from a yearly EUR 2 400 for the first to EUR 4 500 for the fourth or later child (with an increase of EUR 2 800 during each child’s first three years of life). Individuals who are affiliated to social security or another professional scheme may be eligible for maternity, paternity, single-parent or large family deductions, with the latter amount to up to EUR 2 400 for families in the special category and increasing by EUR 600 per child above the large family threshold. Different Autonomous Communities offer a variety of family-related tax deductions, such as deductions related to the disability of a spouse or de-facto partner or other family member, the birth or adoption of a child, maternity or paternity leave, foster or single-parent families; or deductions related to household expenses for services related to the care of children or other household members. Amounts are often quite low and many are means-tested or include other eligibility requirements.

Even though overall social spending (at 2.9% in 2017) is in line with the OECD average (3.0%), Spain spends comparatively little on targeted family benefits and services. In 2017, the spending on family transfers and in-kind services was 1.2% of GDP, compared to the OECD average of 2.1%. The lower than average benefits mentioned above mean that the tax-benefit system does not provide strong disincentives for both parents in a two-parent household or for single parents to work. But these lower benefit levels and relatively low coverage rates of many transfers also imply that the social transfers only reduce the rate of children at risk of poverty by 7%, compared to the 29% cross-OECD average.

There are several policy approaches that could help in the fight against childhood poverty. First, rethinking family policy from a children’s right perspective – while acknowledging differing capacities of families to meet their children’s basic material needs – could offer a way forward from the large family paradigm. Connecting family policy with a comprehensive strategy against childhood poverty means giving priority to preventative measures in particularly during the child’s earliest years and treating children equally through ensuring equal access to opportunities and protections for all children. Second, since parental unemployment and inactivity in particular of single parents is an important risk factor for childhood poverty, policies to support parents’ engagement in the labour market may contribute to reducing childhood poverty. Third, strengthening the enforcement of child maintenance obligations is a particularly important policy tool for improving the situation of single-parent households. Fourth, there are reasons to consider the introduction of a universal child benefit, but potential costs and benefits should be carefully evaluated.

While low-income families are likely to struggle more than others in fulfilling their material and other needs, other families may also have difficulties in satisfying certain material needs and to find adequate care for their pre-school and school age children that fully cover the working hours of the parents; or alternatively to be able to afford to take parental leave. Moreover, all types of families may benefit from family conciliation or parenting education services.

One area in which it has become more difficult for many Spanish families to fulfil their material needs is in housing. On average, housing affordability is only slightly worse in Spain than across the OECD. But in particular low-income and young individuals who do not own their home and are thus reliant on the private rental market or still have to pay off their mortgage may struggle to afford an apartment or house: about four in five low-income tenants and mortgage-paying households are overburdened by their housing costs. Among the 28 OECD countries for which this statistic is available, the share of overburdened tenants is only higher in Greece, the United Kingdom and Denmark.

Families living in certain rural areas that are attractive for secondary residences of (mainly) city dwellers may also face rising housing prices, but in addition have to contend with sparser infrastructure and public and private service offers. Spanish rural areas are becoming more sparsely populated, older and more masculine. Broadband internet is less available than in most other OECD countries.

Leave policies in Spain include maternity leave and leave for the other parent and different types of unpaid leave. Maternity leave lasts 16 weeks, four of which can be taken before the day of the likely birth and six of which have to be taken full-time. Since the beginning of 2021, the same rights are granted to the other parent. These leave periods are individual rights and cannot be transferred to the other parent. For parents affiliated to social security who fulfil certain lenient requirements, the amount they receive during this time is close to 100% of their usual salary, within the lower and upper bounds of EUR 1 050 and 4 070 per month. On top of this paid leave, parents can take unpaid leave during the first three years after birth or adoption; and can reduce their working hours (with a proportional reduction in their pay) while their children are younger than 12. Parents of disabled children can reduce their working hours by up to half (with social security treating the first two years as if they had contributed on their full-time salary for the calculation of pension and other benefits); and parents of severely ill children can reduce their working hours by at least one half and up to 100 (with social security paying an allowance of 100% of the amount established in the work contract for temporary disability caused by the labour-related events). Leave to take care of children with non-severe illnesses remains unregulated.

The maternity and paternity leaves are relatively generous in Spain, but the lack of further paid parental leave lowers the relative generosity. In particular, the gap in the duration of combined maternity and paid parental leave in Spain compared to the OECD average amounts to 38 weeks. Since parental leave is unpaid in Spain, fewer than 5% of children under the age of three had a parent who took unpaid leave. Nevertheless, through the recent extension, the leave for the other parent is twice as long in Spain as in the OECD on average.

Workers have the right to request (but not to be granted) adaptions in the organisation of their working time and conditions, including remote work, if these are needed for family reasons. Collective bargaining agreements are supposed to set out the conditions, but when none exist, employees can now request a negotiation with the employer; and employers must provide objective reasons related to organisational or production needs they refuse the requested adjustment. When controversies persist, workers can turn to social courts, but must substantiate their need for reconciliation measures. In practice, worktime flexibility is often still limited. According to a 2015 survey, less than one-quarter of Spanish employees had some or total control over daily working hours, compared to a European average of around one-third. No state financial support is in place to support adaptation of working times. Some regional governments are investing in this area and social allowances exist that focus on financing measures of reconciliation of work and family life. Since the onset of the pandemic, employees have the right to adjust their working hours after giving 24 hour notice to their employers if they need to care for children who for example have to go into quarantine or for other family members who fell ill with COVID-19.

The public provision of early childhood and pre- and after-school care may leave gaps that parents have to close through relying on formal or informal private providers or through their own initiative. While almost all children attend the second cycle of early childhood education and care from age three onwards, the first cycle is not available or affordable for all parents. In particular in large cities, there is not a sufficient number of public daycare spots, and private institutions are often too expensive. As a result, more than one in five low-income and more than one in six middle-income respondents with children under the age of six said that they would like to use more (formal) childcare, but could not afford to do so. A recent change of the 2006 Organic Act on Education strengthens the requirement for Autonomous Communities to increase the supply of public spots in the first cycle. A new co-responsibility plan moreover foresees measures to strengthen the formalisation of informal care providers and support their hiring by families with children under the age of 14. Families with younger school-age children may still struggle to fill a gap between the end of the school day and the end of the work day. Few children attend centre-based after-school programmes. Private schools usually offer more hours and complementary pre- and after-school services; and the share of pupils who attend lunch service at school is higher than in public schools. Families’ organisation in public schools may offer some of the activities that are on offer in private schools, and in some Autonomous Communities, the regional authorities offer financial support for such out-of-school programmes.

The Autonomous Communities as well as municipalities are also the government level that offer primary and specialised family and child protection services. These can include psychological, educational and social supports for families, including positive parenting programmes; family mediation in cases of separation and divorce; family meeting points for supervised family visit; and support for the victims of gender-based violence. The extent to which these services are indeed universal rather than being targeted at disadvantaged or even ‘problem’ families is unclear.

Spanish policy related to housing does not specifically target families, but gives large and single-parent families, victims of gender-based violence or families that lost their home in a foreclosure priority. State housing plans had traditionally focused on stimulating new construction and home ownership, but now provide rent allowances instead. Applicants’ income have to be below a threshold that depends on family size. The rent has to be less than EUR 600 (or EUR 900 in the case of large families); and the maximum subsidy amounts to 40% of the rent for non-pension age applicants. The number of beneficiaries is comparatively low, and social rental housing plays a negligible role.

Changes in several policy areas have the scope for improving life for a large range of families. A first possibility that could be explored is the introduction of a paid parental leave. However, the fiscal and potential gender equity costs should be carefully evaluated beforehand. Second, formal care options for pre-school and school children could be expanded. Third, workplaces could continue to be incentivised to be more family friendly. Finally, the impact of family mediation and positive parenting programmes on the quality of life of families and on gender equality could be evaluated, and programmes potentially expanded.

As a policy area that falls into the area of responsibility of different ministries and government levels, changes in family policy will likely be more impactful if different relevant actors, including the state, regional and local governments, service providers and advocacy organisations interact and potentially even align their policy instruments. Any major reform in any policy area should ideally be accompanied by an effort to monitor and evaluate its implementation. This approach might also serve to reduce the politicisation of debates around family models and create family policy making processes based on scientific evidence. Monitoring and evaluation should not be an additional element, but the catalyst to mainstream family dimensions in different areas of public policies and legislative activity.

This section first discusses the current status of vertical and horizontal co-operation on family policy. Second, it discusses the situation of monitoring and evaluation systems in family policy.

Family outcomes are determined by a complex web of state, regional and local policies and programmes across a wide array of policy areas. Benefits and services are offered within different competence areas, and levels of public responsibility. The most important areas are developed as part of labour and social security law and tax law. Housing and education policies, as well as social services, are subject to an intricate net of competence and regulations. State law focuses on the basic regulation of labour and social security benefits, and on the framework of taxation of personal income. Social services are under the competence of the Autonomous Communities and provided by public bodies at the local and regional level. Housing and education provision are also under the responsibility of the Autonomous Communities, but the state provides binding guidelines and specific funds.

Most family policy planning instruments already devote a substantial part to establishing and organising advisory boards and councils whose tasks are facilitating co-operation across policy areas and government levels. In addition, some of these instruments also allow NGOs the ability to provide inputs.

The state government reference authority for family policies, the General Directorate for Family Diversity and Social Services works on a permanent basis with an interterritorial commission, which includes representatives from all Autonomous Community administrations in the field of family support; and with an interministerial commission, which includes representatives from relevant ministries and has the possibility to adapt its composition according to policy agendas and priorities. The Family State Council (Consejo Estatal de Familias) and the Family State Observatory (Observatorio Estatal de Familias) used to provide a stable framework for the participation and collaboration of family associations with the general state administration, but their mandate expired in 2011 and was not renewed afterwards.

The current situation could be strengthened in several ways. First, it appears useful to clearly define the responsibilities of existing co-operation bodies. Moreover, it could be worth it to consider reviving the Family State Council and Observatory.

In Spain, as elsewhere, policy design may not fully reflect the existing evidence base nor incorporate a framework against which to judge the benefits and costs of planned policies. With regards to the instrumental (rather than symbolic) function of family policies, the effectiveness of family policies must be consistently evaluated and, if necessary, adjusted. A good way to avoid populism in policy making is to create a culture of public policy evaluation (Flaquer et al., 2012[1]). In order to shape good policies, it is necessary to start with a careful diagnosis of the situation and the challenges posed by social change and to base measures on scientific evidence and proven effectiveness. Whenever possible, measures should be accompanied by quantifiable and regularly reviewed objectives and a set of indicators that allow the monitoring of the situation and provide an evidence basis for a potential updating of policies later on.

Spain’s evaluation culture and institutions are relatively less developed than is the case in some other OECD countries. At the central government level, evaluations are carried out by individual ministries as well as by a dedicated institution. From 2007 to 2017, this was the Spanish Agency for the Evaluation of Public Policies and Quality of Services (Agencia Estatal de Evaluacion de las Políticas Públicas y la Calidad de los Servicios, AEVAL), an independent agency initially within the Ministry of Finance and Public Functions and later in the Office of the President. Since then, its functions have been taken over by the Institute for the Evaluation of Public Policies (Instituto para la Evaluación de Políticas Públicas), initially as a sub-directorate within the same ministry and since 2020 within the Ministry for Territorial Policy and Public function. The Institute is responsible for (in conjunction with the relevant ministry) evaluating plans and programmes that ask for evaluations as well as promoting evaluations through making methodologies and trainings available. Some critics of the experience of AEVAL point to insufficient budgets as well as insufficient demand for evaluations as weak points of the agency.

Prior experience of family support or other plans demonstrate some of the possibilities and difficulties in monitoring and evaluation. Some of the 2015-17 Comprehensive Family Support Plan’s objectives regarding the co-ordination, co-operation and the mainstreaming of family policies that were also relevant for policy evaluation were fulfilled. These include the implementation of the INE Continuous Household Survey and the Household Projection Survey (Encuesta Continua de Hogares y Proyección de Hogares); the elaboration of several studies on youth and family; and the obligation that all regulations with the force of law that processed in the jurisdiction of the state include an analysis of impact on the family. But difficulties were also present. First, some of its measures are difficult to evaluate since the objectives are broad rather than specific and quantified. Second, instead of continuous monitoring, for example to check milestones or deviations, the evaluation was performed at the end. After the plan’s implementation period was completed, a change in government led to an interruption of the evaluation that was already under way. In the end, no final evaluation reports were approved. Prior experience suggests that monitoring Law 26/2015, on the protection of children and adolescents, introduced the obligation to include impact reports on families in draft laws and regulations. Such reports should assess the foreseeable consequences of laws and regulations on the well-being of families, prior to their approval. However, administrations often side-step this requirement by stating that the law or regulation would not have any impacts on families. When reports were actually presented, they often limited themselves to concise statements of intent, without real attempts to forecast the impacts of the proposed measures (García-Ruiz et al., 2020[2]; Redondo, 2021[3]).

Various Autonomous Communities that have passed Family Plans have undertaken either interesting diagnoses or specific evaluations with the support of academic experts and researchers. One positive example is the Basque Country’s systematic monitoring, evaluation and public dissemination over four consecutive inter-institutional family policy plans. The extensive evaluation report of the Third Interinstitutional Plan to Support Families 2011-15 produced by an independent research foundation contributed to a diagnosis on which the Fourth Interinstitutional Plan to Support Families 2018-22 was based. The evaluation itself applied mixed methods with quantitative data on inputs and actions results and on social impacts on families, and with qualitative expert contributions based on expert questionnaires and discussion groups. The new plan includes an improved system for the Plan Governance which includes the continuous monitoring and evaluation in terms of social impacts on Basque families, and the involvement of technical staff and of the Basque Family Observatory (Gobierno Vasco, 2017[4]; Gobierno Vasco, 2018[5]). Another example is the 2016 Catalan Working Group on Children’s Indicators Report, which was based on an interdepartmental group charged with monitoring the impact of Catalan policies on children. Besides a small group of academics from various universities, the group consisted of civil servants in charge of data and statistics from different governmental departments. The Group’s report provided an inventory of available data and potential indicators measuring policy outcomes in terms of impacts amongst the target population.

There are multiple challenges in the creation of a monitoring and evaluation system that functions in the long term. A first challenge is to create adequate communication channels between researchers and decision makers. Researchers may also have to enhance their capacity to establish and communicate the policy implications of research results. A second challenge is that public decision structures have to guarantee continuity for the use of the evaluation system, beyond political changes and shifts, and have to keep up-to-date on research debates and results. For example, many academic experts have contributed to diagnosis reports or policy or evaluation plans that were neither implemented nor published when there was a change in political leadership. Some academics believe that their main function was to rubber-stamp an existing plan rather than having their work fully considered in the initial policy development.

The monitoring and evaluation experience in other policy fields can provide inspiration. For example, evaluations of employment policies occurred in the framework of the European Employment Strategy. They were based on the definition of operative goals in time in terms of population impacts, with annual monitoring of selected social impact indicators and the possibility for comparative evaluations. To ensure the co-operation of the different Autonomous Communities in data sharing, an approach similar to the open method of co-ordination used for the EU Employment Strategy could be used. The open method is based on so-called “soft law” mechanisms, such as guidelines and indicators, benchmarking and the exchange of best practices. The method works in stages: first, objectives are agreed, so that they can be quantified and monitored, and second, the guidelines are incorporated into the specific policies of each participating entity. Third, milestones or benchmarks and specific indicators are agreed to measure best practices, and fourth, results are monitored and evaluated, providing feedback on the formulation of goals and targets. The choice of indicators is key in this type of methodology, and their availability, quality and adequacy must be taken into account for an appropriate selection, as well as a balance between economic and social criteria (Flaquer et al., 2012[1]). In practice, this approach can for example mean setting common but also specific regional goals.

Going forward, monitoring and evaluation of family support policies could be strengthened in a variety of ways. A first area concerns the establishment of regular monitoring involving different actors. A second area to look at are further investments in data structure and the definition and creation of more relevant indicators. Finally, in order for monitoring and evaluation results to play a more important role in the policy debate, they also need to be communicated to the public.


[7] Acquah, D. and O. Thévenon (2020), “Delivering evidence based services for all vulnerable families”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 243, OECD Publishing, Paris.

[1] Flaquer, L. et al. (2012), Bases per l’elaboració del segon pla integral de la familia a Catalunya, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/270568607_Elaboracio_dels_continguts_per_a_les_bases_del_futur_Pla_integral_de_suport_a_la_familia (accessed on 24 June 2021).

[2] García-Ruiz, P. et al. (2020), La perspectiva de familia en las Leyes. Informe elaborado a partir de la reunión de expertos de la Fundación The Family Watch.

[5] Gobierno Vasco (2018), IV Plan de Apoyo a las Familias de la Comunidad Autónoma de Euskadi para el Periodo 2018-2022.

[4] Gobierno Vasco (2017), Informe de evaluación del III Plan Interinstitucional de apoyo a las familias en la CAPV 2011-2015, https://www.euskadi.eus/contenidos/informacion/indice_politica_familiar/es_indice/adjuntos/Evaluaci%C3%B3n%20III%20Plan%20Familia.pdf (accessed on 24 June 2021).

[3] Redondo, P. (2021), Diseño de una metodología para la evaluación del impacto normativo en la familia, Universidad de Zaragoza.

[6] UNICEF/ODI (2020), Universal Child Benefits, https://www.unicef.org/sites/default/files/2020-07/UCB-ODI-UNICEF-Report-2020.pdf (accessed on 12 August 2021).


← 1. In order to closer to the poverty definitions of a number of OECD member states, the OECD Income Distribution Database (IDD) defines the at risk of poverty threshold at 50% of the median income, compared to a 60% cut-off for the equivalent Eurostat indicator. According to Eurostat, 29.5% of children in Spain were at risk of poverty in 2018.

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