Family, Social Inequalities, and the Persuasive Force of Interpersonal Obligation

To date, the privatization of the costs of social inequalities for women and children has been criticized predominantly from a policy perspective. This article seeks to make a stronger case against remedying social inequalities through private law obligations by addressing the theoretical difficulties with such privatization with a particular focus on familial obligations. I take my core examples from the current Canadian understanding of the spousal and child support obligations. My analysis proposes and proceeds on the basis of a new discourse for obligations traditionally grouped together as “Family Law” obligations: first, interpersonal obligations, which arise from and tie together two citizens through either a single interaction or through their relationship as a whole; second, social obligations, which are owed by the community as a whole to individual citizens. I argue that the persuasive force of the focus on an individual’s responsibility for another’s financial need has obscured the reality of the state’s obligation, the broader social obligation, to respond to this need. I conclude with a discussion of the consequences of my analysis for the future of the spousal and child support obligations. If we deny an expanded role to these support obligations, can we do so in a way that avoids leaving the impoverished in an even more precarious position?

This paper is published in (2008) 22 International Journal of Law, Policy, and the Family 61-90, and also available here.

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