Study intended to gauge true status of Canadian families

The National Foundation for Family Research and Education has achieved something remarkably rare and refreshing: an honest and thorough examination of the economic, social, and psychological health of Canadian families.

The NFFRE recently published the Family Health Index, which examines family breakdown, teen pathologies such as drug use and suicide, health care, and poverty, and recommends several solutions to strengthen families.

The FHI says parenting “is a job for which two heads … are usually better than one. Raising children takes time, energy, affection, and financial resources, and the more of these a family has at its disposal … the better.” The research, copiously documented in the FHI, “seems to imply that marriage is an institution uniquely suited to the raising of children.”

Dr. Mark Genuis, NFFRE executive director and founder, told The Interimthat it is misguided to do what most organizations do when they examine the family by focusing exclusively on children and teens, and ignoring the family as a whole. To help children, Dr. Genuis says, “strengthen the unit they grow up in – the family.”

Among other disturbing facts, the NFFRE found families are breaking down at an ever increasing rate. In 1951, there was one divorce for every 24 couples that married; in 1990, there was one divorce for every 2.4 marriages.

Common-law relationships now make up 26 per cent of all Canadian families. Between 1990 and 1995, there were as many common-law unions as marriages. However, they are extremely fragile: about 70 per cent of common-law unions end in separation within five years of their beginning.

Genuis notes that “historically, marriage is valued as not merely a union but a formal commitment,” which is missing in common-law unions. He said common-law unions are easy to walk into and easy to walk out of, so when problems arise, “people take the path of least resistance and leave.”

The report is not entirely negative, however. Nearly all pregnant women have prenatal care, while infant mortality has decreased 75 per cent in the past 30 years. Life expectancy has increased dramatically since 1972. Illustrating some of the advantages of marriage, the FHI notes married Canadians rate their physical health better, participate more in voluntary organizations, are more likely to attend religious services, and less prone to depression and poverty.

Genuis said he is pleasantly surprised that polls indicate Canadians desire family stability. A Compas Poll commissioned by NFFRE and Southam News found 92 per cent of Canadians feel families are under more stress than families were 50 years ago, and that 81 per cent of respondents said the government should place more emphasis on creating conditions to help families stay together.

Genuis argued that the “main contributor” to family breakdown is not liberalized divorce laws, feminism, or the sexual revolution, although each has contributed. The main factor is the tax code. “Families need more income just to make ends meet,” he said. “More people are working more hours and they spend less time with their family. This has a substantial and negative impact.” NFFRE offered three broad recommendations. First, governments should support marriage by providing information about marriage in “sex-education” classes, allow couples to choose more binding marriage contracts, offer pre-marriage courses, and move to a system of “mutual divorce.”

Second, strengthen civil society by simplifying regulations for grassroots non-profit groups and charities. Third, promote economic health and improve education by introducing school choice, raising the school-leaving age, expanding co-op programs, and examine how taxes affect families.

Michael Taube, a columnist with the Hamilton Spectator newspaper, toldThe Interim that the recommendations are original and achievable. Taube agrees with Genuis that taxes are a major impediment to the health of the Canadian family.

But he also argued that it is unlikely that many women in our culture would leave the workforce and return home.