Calgary Herald

Saturday, May 20, 2000

Family breakdown leads to poor single moms

Calgary Herald

Single-parent households in Canada are as prevalent today as a century ago, challenging the perception that unprecedented numbers of single parents are causing a crisis among Canada’s families.

“This culture and this society have always had lone-parent families within it, and we have as a society faced the challenges of how best to support those lone-parent families,” said Robert Glossop, a researcher with the Vanier Institute for the Family and chief author of a new statistical report, Profiling Canada’s Families II.

The percentage of single parents has risen a hair’s breadth- from 13.9 to 14.5 per cent- between 1901 and 1996, according to the report.

The differences between single parents of a century ago are telling, however. A century ago, death -- not divorce or break-up led to most single parent families. Also, single parents could rely on their extended family for support, whereas today they fall back primarily on the government.

“Many lone parents went back and wound up going back and living with their parents or their in-laws and therefore were supported by the larger kin group. Communities did sometimes kick in with some charitable contributions,” Mr. Glossop said.

“That is a difference today, we do live in amore individualized society,” he added. “It’s no longer assumed that we are only economically or financially dependent on our immediate kin.”

Angela Mann, a 19-year-old single mother in Ottawa, says life with her son Kyle is a struggle.

At 16, Mann’s life was turned upside down by her son’s birth, which cost her her friends, halted her schooling and forced her to grow up all too quickly.

“It’s difficult,” said Mann, who lives on about $900 a month, which includes welfare, a baby bonus and $100 a month from Kyle’s father. The money goes toward her $400 rent, cloths, groceries and diapers, with very little left for anything else.

Mann’s struggle is typical of women in her situation. Among different family types in Canada, those headed by single mothers are far more likely to be poor. In 1997, 340,000 single-mother families were considered poor, accounting for 57.1 per cent of all single-mother households.

That has been true for as long as the government has kept track. A Royal Commission on the Status of Women 30 years ago reported 52 per cent of families headed by single women were poor. That number peaked at 62 per cent in 1984, before dropping to its current levels.

“The economic impact is huge. It’s a lose, lose, lose, lose,” said Mark Genuis, director of the National Foundation for Family Research and Education. “Divorce rate and family breakdown is a near direct path to poverty for women and children. Teen parenting, which has gone up, is another direct path to poverty.”

Genuis said single-parent households of today should not be compared too readily to those of the past, since the impact of a family breakdown was far different than the effect of death of a parent.

Countless contemporary social problems, such as high rates of suicide and low youth employment, stem from the collapse of relationships between parents, he said.

“Many of these challenges stem out of the breakdown of, and the lack of relationship that these children have with their families,” he said.

The Vanier Institute report emphasizes the plight of single mothers and fathers is nothing new.

Over the course of the century, the reasons behind single-parent families has undergone a critical shift, though the results of single parenthood remain equally troubling, with single mothers facing alarming high levels of poverty and other stresses.

At the end of the 19th century, as Canada was rapidly industrializing and urban populations were on the rise, so too was the number of widows and widowers, who comprised almost 80 per cent of single parents.

Industrial accidents crippled or killed male breadwinners. Tuberculosis and influenza claimed the lives of both men and women.

Abandonment by a spouse accounted for 16.5 per cent of single parents; 0.4 per cent were divorced; and 3.5 per cent were raising their children alone because they never married or for other reasons.

The 1.4 million single parents in Canada today find themselves alone for almost the opposite reasons as they did 100 years ago. Twenty-two per cent of them have never been married, 24 per cent are separated, 34 per cent divorced and only 20 per cent are widowed.

The Vanier Institute of the Family
94 Centrepointe Drive
Nepean, Ontario, Canada, K2G 6B1
Tel: 613-228-8500 Fax: 613-228-8007

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