Improving the well-being of children has deep and long-lasting benefits for societies. Researchers and policy makers alike have long investigated potential means of improving societal mechanisms aimed at children and families. This paper examines the advances made by Montenegro as a result of reforming its family policies. It does so by comparing these reforms, and their outcomes with wider EU trends and by considering the extent to which these changes in family policies go hand in hand with improvements in the well-being of children and families. As a recognised candidate for membership of the EU, Montenegro is progressively adopting family policies in accordance with EU standards and requirements. However, there is a pressing need for research investigating the extent to which reforms to family policy in Montenegro are in fact associated with improved conditions for children and families.
This paper analyses Montenegro’s major family policy documents and focuses on those documents recognised as directly linked with children’s well-being, such as parental leave policies and early education policies, and on research that investigates the well-being of children and families. These are then compared nationally and to wider EU trends. Using a macro-level comparison approach, the living conditions of children and families in Montenegro are evaluated more broadly. This reveals potential trends that may hinder, or support, the well-being of children and families.
There has been much theoretical work carried out with the aim of developing family policies. Reflecting the various social changes that have taken place over preceding decades, a wide variety of different approaches to family policies have emerged. Recent work on family policy has investigated changing childbearing and partnership trends, the effects of different household structures on childhood well-being, the relationship between well-being, economic activity and socio-economic trends, and the consequences of an ageing society [1
]. Given the importance of childhood well-being, research into the effects of family policies must be innovative as well as empirically well-grounded. Considering systemic factors such as globalisation, migration, and common forms of economic crisis [2
] reinforces the necessity of taking a systemic and coordinated approach to the well-being of families and children.
In what follows, family policies are taken to be “policies associated with families with children”, and as policies that seek to promote the functionality and well-being of families with children [3
]. In Kamerman and Kahn’s [4
] terms, the focus of this paper is explicit family policies. These are policies with the express purpose of achieving aims regarding the family, contrasting with policies that may incidentally have consequences for families and children, despite this not being their stated aim. Taking a proactive approach, this paper investigates and analyses policies which have as their aim the creation of a more equal and just society.
Although family households, parents’ circumstances and the well-being of children are the main focus of this paper’s analysis, ‘family’ is recognised as having multiple meanings and applications across different European contexts. It is important to recognise a diversity of family household formations, relationships and practices within and across countries, as well as the diverse ways in which the family lives of children and parents operate beyond and across households. Furthermore, this paper takes a critical perspective that challenges the inequalities and risks associated with family constructs and dynamics. The analysis presented here has as one of its background commitments that children’s rights, gender equality and social justice are crucial and necessary family policy goals [3
The family policies explored and analysed in this paper are those that exist at the national level, created by national legislation and funded by a state’s central government. This is important to emphasize, as policy can also be established at subnational or supranational level and even at the level of individual private companies and organisations [3
]. Additionally, family policy is not amongst the EU’s direct competences. Family policy therefore falls within the legislative purview of individual member states. Nevertheless, the significant number of policy recommendations made by the EU constitutes a solid legal framework.
The theoretical approach used in this paper is welfare state theory, with a particular focus on the social investment paradigm. This is a future-oriented approach which investigates the development of human capital and the opportunities for investing in citizens from the earliest age. The approach aims at prevention and preparation, developing proactive measures rather than acting after the fact [6
]. According to the approach taken here, social policy is a precondition for economic growth [7
]. The concept of social investment is used to analyse policies with the explicit goal of protecting human capital in parents and developing it in children. Family policies are understood as pivotal in virtue of the role they play in enabling family development and creating the best possible conditions for children, through high-quality preschool education and care institutions.
A study published by the OECD in 2009 demonstrates that family policies can have a positive impact on children’s well-being [8
]. The study investigates the effects of cash transfers, parental pro-employment policies and in-kind services with different policy approaches. The study’s results demonstrate that increased family income has positive effects on children, as measured by cognitive ability and educational outcomes. The effect is particularly pronounced in early childhood. The study also demonstrates that early intervention for at-risk children has the most profound effect, due to a longer pay-off period, greater malleability of cognitive outcomes, and complementarity between spending in early and later childhood [8
Other studies have produced similar results. Norwegian practice reveals the positive effects of universal preschool childcare and education on educational outcomes in high school and beyond, as well as on earnings [9
]. Baker et al. [11
] present a number of studies which also highlight positive outcomes of universal childcare programmes, especially for disadvantaged and at-risk children. Their study also finds that such childcare programmes have a positive impact on children’s educational aspirations later in life, e.g., in PISA test results [11
]. A further study focusing on specific populations, in this case adopted children, also demonstrates the impact of parents’ socio-economic conditions on children’s educational outcomes [12
One current debate is whether universal childcare for children older than three, offered in preschool education and care institutions, has an equally positive effect on all children. In other words, do all children benefit from this universal provision to the same extent or do outcomes vary depending on factors such as the economic status and welfare of parents, implying the need for a more targeted approach [13
]? Considering this question is vitally important in virtue of the fact that preschool care and compulsory education represent a large investment of public funds and the impact of such policies should justify their expenditure. This, however, is not the only factor to consider. Parents’ responses to different policy approaches (e.g., availability vs. changes in childcare costs) also matter [13
] argues that parental leave policies are of the highest importance for parents because of their potential to have negative consequences on women’s employment. Liu and Skans provide evidence that mothers being in employment leads to the creation of alternative human capital investments [17
]. Given considerations such as these, the effective design of parental leave policies is important for both parents and children.
Familial and de-familial approaches both provide insights into the nature of caring obligations and the ways in which the design of a country’s welfare state reinforces one or the other [18
]. The socialisation or marketization of family care either motivates the family to be the main provider of care or to find adequate caring services on the market, provided by either public or private institutions. In other words, the dominant approach taken in this policy area usually leads to one of two potential consequences. Taking one approach to the design of a country’s welfare state relieves the family of its caring obligations, allowing the continuation of work. This is thought to be of greater relevance to women. Alternatively, a country’s welfare state is designed in such a way that it prevents a return to work and provides other direct or indirect benefits for parents who carry out caring duties.
Normative assumptions about gender roles and the social organisation of care play a role in defining regulations dealing with parental leave and childcare services, a process referred to as policy conceptual logic [16
]. The specifics of policy design are of crucial importance to the state because such decisions define the degree to which the state supports the dual-earner model of the family, representing the transformative potential of policy [16
]. Family policies which impose conditions on parental leave may constrain the choices that families make in relation to children, especially if high-quality childcare provision is not available [16
]. The potential for negative impacts on women means that decisions on parental leave policies must be made carefully. As a general pattern, mothers take periods of leave with greater frequency and length. This potentially undermines their opportunities for career progression, in turn leading to depletion of skills, lower wages, reduced access to more senior positions and negative external perceptions of their commitment to their job [20
A child’s living conditions also influence the level of well-being and subsequent life opportunities. Poverty and lower family income may have a substantial negative impact on a child’s well-being. Additionally, the timing of poor or worsening living conditions has also been shown to be important, with the most negative effects being observed during a child’s preschool and early school years [25
]. The negative impacts of poverty can be observed in educational outcomes [32
]. Fernandez and Ramia document the negative effects of poverty on a child’s experiences at school, both socially and academically, and demonstrate that these effects are mostly indirect [33
]. This research suggests that living conditions can significantly impact many different aspects of child’s well-being, despite focusing primarily on a child’s cognitive and non-cognitive abilities and achievements. Persistent poverty, as well as extreme poverty, appears to have a particularly negative impact.
An overview of the Montenegrin implementation of family policies reveals a solid legal framework which is not reflected in similarly positive outcomes. Nor, it must be admitted, is there a strategic recognition of family policies. In comparison with EU member states, Montenegro is lagging behind in practice. This is despite, as could be seen in the previous section, the more favourable legal requirements and conditions with regard to at least some family policies.
The analysis carried out in the previous section demonstrated significantly higher risks for all of the social groups relevant for our purposes, particularly for single-parent families. This is all the more pressing given that single-parent families are not recognised in the Montenegrin strategic framework as being vulnerable or at a higher level of risk. Data shows that the yearly number of divorces has steadily increased between 2016 and 2019, from 703 to 841 [54
]. This points to an additional degree of risk, following an increased number of prospective single-parent families. Single-parent families face a higher risk of poverty and social exclusion when compared to two-parent families, with the level of risk increasing in 2019. Two-parent families offer a greater degree of security for the children raised in them. The fact that the number of single parents is likely to be increasing, together with the attendant increased level of risk, reinforces the crucial importance of this issue. Despite this, its importance is still not reflected in Montenegro’s actions regarding families. In the long run, this failure could lead to severe reductions in the level of well-being of children raised in single-parent families. Overall, the living conditions of Montenegrin citizens are similar to the worst-performing EU member states. On most metrics, Montenegro fares even more poorly than these member states and in all cases fares significantly worse than the EU average.
The ample provision of maternity leave in Montenegro, especially in comparison to EU member states, provides an opportunity for women to take long and well-paid breaks from their work. However, this provision also leaves unanswered questions concerning women’s future prospects and long-term work opportunities, which may be negatively impacted by a long absence from work. Shortening the statutory period of leave, however, is unlikely to have a positive impact on the well-being of either women or, especially, children. Such a change would raise concerns about the quality of care that mothers are able to provide and may lead to periods of leave being taken by other means. Single parents face an additional risk as they need to successfully combine work and sole caring responsibilities. The provision of long periods of parental leave can be expected to have a positive impact on children’s well-being.
The 2019 Eurydice report includes Montenegro in its comparison of early childhood education and care (ECEC) standards and aligns Montenegro with the highest ranked countries in the EU. One criterion the report uses to assess countries is the educational requirements placed on staff working with children. Montenegrin laws require staff to have a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is the case in one third of the countries included in the report [48
]. Montenegrin laws also require assistants to have an initial qualification. However, there is no requirement for staff working in ECEC to undergo continuing personal development, which would be a step towards increasing standards. Comparatively speaking, however, the majority of the EU member states have similar requirements. Finally, on the criteria of the type of settings (unitary or separate), having one or more authorities overlooking ECEC, staff qualifications and education guidelines, Montenegrin ECEC is labelled as integrated [48
]. From this it can be inferred that early education and care standards in Montenegro have been increased to equal the highest standards found in its European neighbours.
Nevertheless, keeping in mind the number of children in classrooms, as well as inadequate knowledge and skills testing of practitioners [55
], the actual consequences for children’s well-being and education might not be as straightforwardly positive as the statutory requirements would suggest. As a consequence, it is doubtful that Montenegro’s approach to children’s well-being results in the best possible outcomes. A lack of studies in this policy area hinders drawing further conclusions. Implementation of strict criteria for evaluating the work of practitioners would provide data with which further conclusions could be drawn.
Educational outcomes can also be understood as consequences of a high-quality family policies framework. For the purpose of this paper, PISA test results are considered. With regards to average test results, in 2018 Montenegro was placed 54th out of 77 countries, with an average score of 422 [56
]. It was well below the highest-ranking EU countries (Estonia with an average score of 525.3 and Finland with 516.3) and close to Bulgaria (426.7), Romania (428) and Cyprus (438) [56
]. Results are similar for the three test categories (mathematics, science, reading), where Montenegrin pupils score significantly lower than pupils in EU member states. It must be stated, however, that these results are not solely a result of family policies but also of the broader features of the educational system and the quality of education provided within it.
The use of preschool education and care in Montenegro has only increased significantly in the last decade or so, a consequence of the familial policy approach taken during the previous period. During this period, families were expected to care for children at least until the age of 3, or a year before the child began attending school. Montenegro also has a long history of men being expected to be their family’s breadwinner. This has started to change, especially in the last two decades, bringing Montenegro in line with most of the countries that belong to what Esping Andersen calls the conservative model of the welfare state [57
]. The fact that this can only partly explain the situation that Montenegro finds itself in suggests the necessity of appealing to other factors, such as historical and cultural traits. Montenegro’s strategic framework aims at improving educational opportunities for children but the potential of family friendly policies to achieve this aim has not yet been recognised. This is particularly pronounced when it comes to decreasing overall inequality among children, given that family friendly policies have a great deal of potential in this area.
A comparatively lower level of paternal leave uptake, together with a lower level of childcare participation, jointly imply that women carry a greater childcare burden in Montenegro than women in EU member states. In the long term, this may create pressures on the economic stability of families, subsequently endangering children’s equal access to opportunities. Lingering questions over the quality of childcare, as a result of overcrowded classes and practitioners being insufficiently knowledgeable and poorly tested, provide additional pressure on families, especially on single parents.
The data on the social protection budget shows that Montenegro spends less on cash and in-kind benefits related to households than the average EU member state [59
]. Although this is a crude indicator, it is nevertheless instructive that the amount is lower both as a percentage of the social protection budget and as a percentage of GDP. Other indicators suggest similar conclusions. One exception is the “survivors” budget. However, it cannot be expected that this group of benefits can compensate for a lack of spending on families and children.
These conclusions demonstrate the need to further investigate the systemic causes of the poor outcomes of what is currently a very de-familial policy approach. This is an approach which is supportive for mothers and creates positive conditions for childcare enrolment. However, the case of Montenegro reveals that the well-being of children requires the careful coordination of different policies, including, but moving beyond, family policies. A lack of strategic recognition of family policies strongly indicates that Montenegro lacks a future-oriented approach. This would be one that takes advantage of the cumulative positive outcomes of family policies. Instead, Montenegro has individual policies which serve their purpose of providing rights to citizens but fail to create conditions in which these citizens can prosper. A longitudinal study on educational and occupational attainment would allow for more nuanced results and would provide further, and more detailed, insights.
Montenegro’s status as a merely prospective EU member may leave those citizens who are now children with significantly lower opportunities for a prosperous life. This is because their human capital has not been optimally developed. Montenegrin children live in worse social conditions than children in the EU. As a result of this, as well as other negative outcomes such as a worse quality of care in preschool educational institutions, their well-being is lower than those living in EU member states.
Single-parent families are facing an increased risk of poverty and social exclusion. Together with the lower quality of care that may result from increased class sizes in preschool education institutions, the well-being of these children is severely endangered. PISA test results for Montenegro’s current high school students reinforce the need to address these issues by planning policies in accordance with the other relevant policy areas. Furthermore, policies need to be planned in a way that their joint outcome does not undermine the intended positive consequences of any individual policy. Vulnerable groups must be clearly defined, as must those policies which aim at promoting their well-being. In the context of family policies, this means special attention must be paid to policies aimed at single parents.