National Post

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Saturday, June 12, 1999

Single fathers falling behind married fathers
Salary analysis: Lone-father families still do better than single-mother ones

Tom Spears
Ottawa Citizen

LENNOXVILLE, Que. - There are more than 111,000 single fathers in Canada, and they're getting poorer.

The single father of 30 years ago was most likely a widower. Today, a single father is probably a blue-collar worker who split up with his wife -- or girlfriend -- and won custody of the kids.

"I don't think we worried about them too much in the past because we assumed they did pretty well," says Kevin McQuillan, a professor at the University of Western Ontario. "We assumed they didn't experience some of the problems that single mothers do."

But "studies suggest poverty among lone-father families is significantly above two-parent families, and is on the rise," he told a conference of population experts here this week.

"They do better than single-mother families," he said in an interview. "But in terms of things like income, they also fall significantly behind two-parent families."

As they fall farther behind two-parent families, "they now start to look more like single-mother families," he says.

Mr. McQuillan analyzed census data from 1971 to 1996 to show how the single father's place in society has shifted.

In 1971, nearly a quarter of single fathers had that status because they were widowed. And just a handful had custody of children when they had never even been married.

By 1996, the year of Canada's last census, the number of widowed single dads fell to less than 9% of the total, as it became far more common for fathers to win the primary custody of children for reasons other than the death of the mother. Meanwhile, nearly 20% of fathers had custody without having been married to the children's mother.

In 1971, the largest age group of single fathers (45% of the total) were at least 45 years old. In 1996, the biggest group (about 50% of all single fathers) was aged 35 to 44. This may reflect the fact that being widowed is no longer such a major reason for being a single father.

But money is the biggest change in the single father's life. In 1971, the men who had custody of children were in reasonable financial shape: A single father made, on average, 76% as much as a two-parent family. Today, they earn only 54% as much as an average two-parent family.

It's not just that two-parent families have two incomes. Even measured against just the father of a two-parent family, the single father is losing ground. In 1981, the single father had 88% as much income as a married father. By 1996, his earnings had slipped to only 77% of the married father's income.

Mr. McQuillan says this reflects a slipping in the single father's place in society. He has to deal with low wages or unemployment; or, if he has a job, his family responsibilities don't let him work long hours and take on promotions.

Also, today's single father is less likely to have a post-secondary education than the father of a two-parent family.

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