The state can do only so much for single-parent families
Thursday, January 29, 1998, By Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail, OTTAWA

OTTAWA -- JOHN Richards of Simon Fraser University writes a 300-page essay for the C. D. Howe Institute about the state of the welfare state. He devotes a dozen or so pages to family structure, arguing the state should encourage two-parent families.

Boom. The rest of his report gets ignored (too bad), and debaters line up (again) on two sides of the tiresome "family values" divide.

To mention two-parent "families" in social-policy debates is to risk being branded an antifeminist. Or maybe be labelled a hopeless traditionalist pining for a time when a woman's place was in the home, sometimes in lousy, abusive marriages.

All Mr. Richards said, knowing it would be "an invitation to controversy," was that "the many factors that bear on the successful raising of children include family structure. In general, two-parent families, comprising a mother and a father, do it better."

Plenty of value judgments underpin those highly qualified assertions. (Note the words "many factors" and "in general terms"). But leave aside those value judgments about whether two-parent families are qualitatively better for raising children.

What seems clear, from the best research, is that the greater the number of single-parent families in a society, the greater the inequalities among families and individuals. What the state can or should do about this is probably pretty marginal.

Talking about family structure and income inequality doesn't stigmatize or moralize. It's just a statistical fact. Single parents, on balance, are poorer than couples. The increase in the number of single-parent families has been a major -- we might even say the major -- reason for income inequalities in Canada.

That's why those who care about equality and a measure of social justice had to be depressed by the recent Statistics Canada report showing an upsurge in teen-age pregnancies. The rate of 48.8 pregnancies per 1,000 teen-agers is lower than 25 years ago, but it's been rising slowly since bottoming out at 41.1 in 1987. The core of Canada's poor are young, poorly educated women with children.

The state can do what it can to reduce inequalities and increase opportunities -- tax policy, day-care financing, sex education in schools, enforcement of support orders and the like. But there are some things the state can't do to influence individual behaviour. It just deals with the consequences.

Three detailed papers in a recent issue of the Canadian Business Economics journal underscore the link between family structure, economic forces and inequalities.

The papers, by respected researchers, all suggest that government programs have been barely adequate in holding the line against widening inequalities in the market economy. Government social programs have been leaning into the wind of increasing inequalities, at least among individuals.

Even among similarly structured families, income inequalities widen when, as often happens, affluent and educated people marry, bringing two large incomes into one family unit.

This so-called "sorting behaviour" tends to produce unions of individuals with similar economic potential: rich with rich, poor with poor. Apparently, this tendency is more widespread than ever, and it risks perpetuating itself from generation to generation. There's not much the state can do about this.

One paper in the collection, by federal researchers Myles Zyblock and Iain Tyrell, concludes that "the rising incidence of lone-parent families under 45 is the single most important factor for explaining the increase in market income inequality from 1984 to 1993."

From 1984 to 1993, according to the researchers, the income of single parents fell from 23 per cent of average market income to 18.5 per cent. "These lone parents saw their market income decline 19.7 per cent in real terms over the period," the researchers found.

Female entry into the labour force, however, helped reduce family income inequalities. Without that entry, family income inequality would have widened because the disappearance of blue-collar jobs expanded income inequalities among men. Now that the female participation rate in the labour force is close to the male one, another surge of women into the labour force won't flatten out family income inequalities.

Male income inequality is now wider than that for women. Young men who leave school prematurely or have few skills are in terrible economic trouble. The only group economically more vulnerable are young women lacking education or marketable skills who are also mothers.

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