September 20, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Canada’s statistics-gathering agency, imaginatively named Statistics Canada, released a lot of data last week and various commentators are beginning to, well, comment. Such is this article that gets a lot right (Financial Times, 9/19/17). Any piece that includes the following message can’t be all bad.
You want to raise your kid’s chances of being poor? Get divorced.
It should come as no surprise that, in Canada as throughout the English-speaking world, single-parenthood and poverty go hand in hand. That of course means kids of single parents are much more likely than kids in two-parent families to live in poverty. Among other things, it’s worth remembering that public policy, in a variety of ways, promotes exactly that. You read that right; public policy promotes divorce which promotes child poverty. No one in government will ever admit such a thing, but facts don’t lie.
We promote divorce with cash incentives in the form of child support and alimony and make the process simple with no-fault divorce laws. Parenting time laws and court practices marginalize one parent in the lives of their kids, making them effectively children of a single parent. Welfare policies sideline fathers. The absence of laws against paternity fraud result in more single mothers and more kids without biological fathers who are more likely than others to be strongly connected to their kids. The failure by courts to enforce the parenting time of non-custodial parents and the failure of the federal government (in the U.S.) to offer states the financial wherewithal to enforce those parents’ rights both promote single parenthood. Pop culture everywhere lauds single mothers as “courageous” instead of looking at the realities they and their children face.
So yes, we find many ways with which to promote single parenthood that in turn results in child poverty to a great degree. Such is the dysfunction of government when it comes to policies on children.
Meanwhile, Financial Post writer William Watson doesn’t get all that, but he manages the basics.
If you look at the numbers, however, you’re more likely to conclude the real problem [of child poverty] is family breakdown…
Half the 1.2 million kids living in low income, 602,850, live in two-parent families. But almost as many — 531,295 — live in lone-parent families, even though kids in two-parent families out-number kids in lone-parent families almost four to one. That’s right. The one-fifth of kids living in lone-parent families produce almost half our low-income children.
In the U.S., between 33% and 40% of kids living with a single mother live in poverty. About 8% of those living with a single father do, but of course few single fathers have custody of their children. So our national default position of granting primary or sole parenting time to mothers increases children’s likelihood of living in poverty.
But my guess is divorce is the result of other social forces.
Watson being a business and finance writer means he’s particularly – and rightly – irritated with commentators who try to place the problem of child poverty at the feet of capitalism. A glance at the astonishing decline of poverty world-wide since the inception of industrial capitalism gives the lie to any such claim. So Watson is correct to glance at “other social forces.”
One of those of course is what causes divorce, i.e. a woman’s husband losing his job or becoming underemployed. That’s the finding of this study. The other is the fact that it’s women who file for divorce. Some 70% of divorces are initiated by women. According to researchers Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen, women do so because they know to a virtual certainty that they’ll get the kids and the income that goes with them. The former reason qualifies as a “social force,” i.e. women’s tendency to hypergamy. The latter is purely a function of policy and, as such, subject to reform.
Now, we’re not likely to, nor should we, go back to the divorce laws of the 1950s and before, when in some provinces people needed an act of Parliament to get a divorce. Nor will we return to the social mores of bygone times, when dissolving a family carried real social stigma. And, of course, for many kids living in low income with one of their parents may well be better than continuing on in a toxic marriage, even if it does mean getting by on less. It may also be that low income leads to divorce, not just vice versa. In short, the question is complex.
Actually, it’s not. Actually it’s fairly simple. There are things we can do to address the problem of single parenthood and child poverty and things we can’t. Winston’ correct to say that we’re not going back to the days of fault-based divorce and we’re not going to re-impose a social stigma on divorce. Those are things we can’t do. What we can do is make sensible reform to family laws, child support and alimony. Most importantly, we can give parents equal time with their kids following divorce or separation. That would offer each a real chance at earning enough to keep everyone above the poverty line.
Winston’s no expert in this field, but his piece gets right the most important aspect of child poverty – divorce and family courts. We can fix both and should.
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