02Report coverOn June 3, the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada released a report entitled, “Private Choices, Public Costs: How Failing Families Cost us All,” detailing the cost of family breakdown in Canada by examining the relationship between poverty and family structure.

Co-authors Rebecca Walberg and Andrea Mrozek say that the cost of poverty alleviation for broken families is “a bare minimum” of nearly $7 billion annually to taxpayers. The research focuses only on programs designed to alleviate poverty and does not include the costs associated with the criminal justice system, education, family courts and agencies that enforce support payments. Furthermore, in all their estimates, the authors used the most conservative numbers to ensure the study’s credibility was beyond question.

The authors count divorced and single parents as part of family breakdown and draw attention to the increase of common-law relationships (which have a higher break-up rate than married couples) to illustrate the enormous costs of the disintegration of the ideal of the two-parent family as well as the feminization of poverty.

Mrozek and Walberg say, “If we are serious about reducing poverty, especially children and women in poverty, we must address the effects of family breakdown.” They add: “We may believe that family structure doesn’t matter; but the data show the best thing you can do for your kids is raise them in a stable, married-parent home.”

In 1961, 92 per cent of families were married, while in 2006 that figure was down to 69 per cent — still the norm, but decreasingly so.

Single-parent households are much more likely to fall below the Statistics Canada low-income cut-off, which reflects the cost of living in different regions of the country. The authors state, “Not only  do single-parent households have lower incomes, they rely upon government transfers, both universal and means-tested, for a significantly higher proportion of their income than do couple households.

In 2006 (the most recent year for all the relevant data), the provinces spent $6,850,231 on income support, subsidized housing, child care and other programs, usually medical and pharmacare, to alleviate the poverty of single-parent homes. As Mrozek and Walberg observe, “Chronic poverty is linked to single parenthood.”

Furthermore, single parenthood is linked to the “feminization of poverty.” Across the country, families led by a single female earn about 40-50 per cent less than intact, two-parent families and typically 20 per cent less than families led by a single male. Female-headed single families are also more than three times as likely to fall under the low-income cut-off than intact families, with more than 30 per cent of such families below the LICO line.

Also, whereas approximately 80 per cent of household income comes from employment in other families, female-led single families earn only 70 per cent of their household income in employment. The authors state that if society is “serious about improving the standard of living of women, especially mothers, we must reduce family breakdown.”

The authors estimate that by cutting family breakdown in half, and assuming that half of intact families would still need some form of social assistance, the savings to Canadian taxpayers would be $1.7 billion. They say that long-term solutions to addressing poverty must include encouraging stable families.

While “Private Choices, Public Costs” is the first study of its kind in Canada, it replicates similar findings in other developed countries, including New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. As the authors note, “The links between family structure and poverty are evident in all (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries.”

The authors make six recommendations:

High schools students be educated about the benefits of marriage

The benefits of marriage and drawbacks of divorce be included in pre-marital and marital counseling;

Family taxation be introduced to give couples a financial break;

The provinces be required to account for social spending by providing annual reports detailing what proportion of social services go to married, cohabitating and single parents;

There should be more accurate tracking of marriage versus common-law in statistics

Governments and private groups be permitted to promote marriage over common-law relationships, including withholding the benefits of marriage to cohabitating couples.

Family breakdown a ‘pathway’ to poverty: study authors