On June 3, the Institute for Marriage and Family Canada released Private Choices, Public Costs, a report on the cost family breakdown to taxpayers. Interim editor Paul Tuns spoke with Rebecca Walberg and Andrea Mrozek, co-authors of the report.
The Interim: Why did you choose to look into the public costs of individual, private choices such as marriage, living single and divorce? What was the impetus for such a study?
We hoped to increase awareness that not all family forms are equally good for the individuals involved, especially children, in particular where we are concerned with poverty alleviation. Put differently, there is no excuse for Canadians to dismiss the importance of strong marriages. Many voices on the left hold that we must validate all household forms, without regard to the nature of the relationships. Many voices on the right argue that all forms of relationship are irrelevant to the government. Both of these positions miss the mark. There are kinds of relationships and households that serve their members well, helping them to thrive. Healthy families are a public good and they generate not only social capital, but also reductions in spending, since their members tend to be happier, healthier and better off financially.
TI: What was the greatest challenge in conducting this research?
RW: Our greatest challenge was in finding accurate data that tracked the rate of family breakdown and its attendant financial costs. In some cases, this was impossible. Very few agencies in Canada track marital and family status thoroughly and accurately. We dealt with it by using information from the census, Statistics Canada, Human Resources and Social Development Canada and provincial budgets and reports, interpolating when necessary and always taking the most conservative estimate possible. This absence of data is itself telling: we measure what we consider important and the reality is that many people, and government itself, don’t think family arrangements are important.
TI: Can you summarize your findings in a few sentences? What was the most surprising thing you discovered in the data?
: Our findings show that if you are in a broken family, you are more likely to be poor. We see in this study that family structure is one of – not the only or even main one – but one of the pathways to poverty. The most surprising thing is likely the many myriad ways in which government is involved to overcome the failure of families, community and private actors in providing help to families who fail. There really are so many different layers of government services directed to this.
TI: Pro-marriage advocates have often noted that socially conservative policies are necessary so that the economic conservatives can have their smaller government and lower taxes. In what ways would your study demonstrate that social conservatives are correct?
RW: We know that family breakdown greatly increases the risk of poverty, especially for dependent children. As a society, we have limited ways of responding to this poverty after the fact. We are, quite rightly, unwilling to stand by and let children go without basic necessities. However, the best strategy, as with so many other social ills, is to prevent the problem from arising in the first place and this is what we advocate. It’s clear that preventing family breakdown is better for families and children, and also for taxpayers.
The policy implications of this are less clear. Our major recommendations are education, transparency in statistics about family forms and dependence on social services and tax reforms that let households to file taxes as a unit, thus attaching a modest incentive to exactly those families – stable, married households – that provide their kids with the greatest protection against poverty.
We also cannot separate fiscal and social policy. One has a definite effect on the other. When we look at outcomes, we must look at both short- and long-term results and in turn, for example, how a tax change will impact family life as well as what that change may result in fiscally.
TI: Many of your recommendations seem uncontroversial – marriage education in high school, providing information about the benefits of marriage and costs of family break-down, requiring annual reports for provincial ministries, provide information by family-type, better statistics for comparing marriage and common-law relationships. How much difference will better statistics and the provision of simple information make to individuals and society?
RW: Knowledge is power! Public education is the sine qua non of changing behaviour. Look at the tremendous changes over the past generation in how we view drunk driving, or smoking while pregnant – educating the public about the costs and consequences of such behaviour has done much to reduce its frequency.
Expecting Canadians to form stable families without understanding the difference between marriage and other household types is like expecting people to stay fit without explaining to them the importance of exercise and a good diet. Most Canadian teens and young adults say that having a family in the future is very important to them. We need to give them the facts they need to make the choices to achieve their dreams on the personal side, just as we do about career choices, for example.
TI: Two of your recommendations may be more controversial. First, you suggest privileging couples by introducing family taxation and you also want government to stop providing common-law couples with the same benefits given to married couples. How will such policies help?
RW: Households headed by a married couple are not the same as households headed by a cohabiting couple. Marriage makes couples more likely to stay together, live longer and report higher levels of happiness and less likely to abuse each other, cheat on each other and break up than cohabiting couples. And when kids come into the picture, the stakes get even higher, both in terms of financial factors and in harder-to-measure, but still crucial, respects. Family taxation would relieve a portion of the tax burden borne by married households, but these households, in turn, help to reduce the burden of social assistance borne by taxpayers.
It’s a question of fairness, and of promoting the behaviour that benefits all of us the most. But these benefits should be attached only to marriage. Private groups, too, should be permitted to differentiate between married and cohabiting couples. Individuals should still be able to make their own decisions; however, they should have full information before they make it.
TI: You repeatedly stated that you are using conservative estimates and exclude costs that are indirect and perhaps less obvious, so that those who are not open to a pro-family message would be open to your report. How has “the other side” reacted to Private Choices, Public Costs?
AM: There really is a lot of factual data that cannot be disputed in the report. As such, the “other side” has been remarkably quiet. There were some fairly anodyne quotes in the papers suggesting we were not open enough to diversity or some falling on the ridiculous side about how we want to force people to marry or return to Leave it to Beaver days. It’s clear if you actually read the report that there is no moral judgment of various family forms.
What we do highlight, however, rather strongly, is the statistical reality associated with the array of choices available to individuals today. One radio host said he’d been living with his girlfriend for 10 years and they were considering having kids. He asked if he should change his lifestyle, and that might be considered a somewhat snarky question. Our sense is that he was genuinely interested and had never heard about the body of social science research showing that living together and getting married are two very different things, in particular for kids.
TI: This issue has been studied in other countries and invariably it shows that the children of broken and single-parent families do objectively worse in most social indicators. Why won’t policy-makers heed such findings? Is this study enough to change the tide and, if not, what else can be done to wake government up to the public costs of private choices?
AM: Our feeling is that Canada is a bit behind on understanding the importance of families for poverty and well-being. Other countries have tapped into this and are examining the trends more closely. Certainly our report is a first step for Canada — and only a first step. But we hope it’s a thoughtful one. This paper is a solid, non-partisan research effort with practical applications for families, charities, religious groups and government. I think we are hitting a point where government resources (our tax dollars) are becoming more and more precious and more and more scarce. It will be a smart government or politician who picks up on this and champions these ideas in the public square, whether it be for financial or social reasons.