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Unmarried With Children

Cardus Family has unearthed a startling new statistic: fewer than two-thirds of Canadian children now have married parents. Program director Andrea Mrozek and senior researcher Peter Jon Mitchell tell Convivium how they discovered the number, and what it means for Canadian family life.

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Topics: Family
Unmarried With Children February 20, 2018  |  By Peter Stockland, with Andrea Mrozek, Peter Jon Mitchell
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Convivium: In its latest research report, Cardus Family has made public census data showing a record low for the number of Canadian children with married parents. But there’s also an intriguing backstory to how you discovered the statistic. What happened to make you go to Statistics Canada to dig it up?

Andrea Mrozek: We wanted continuity in understanding how the living arrangements of children affect the way they’re being raised in this country. In the release of (census) family statistics in 2017, that was not profiled. It wasn't included, even though what we know about family forms is that marriage matters for children. We followed up to get data on children’s living arrangements whether by marriage, cohabitation, lone parenting, step parenting, divided out. We had to make a special request.

Convivium: Did Statistics Canada simply stop collecting the data for 2017?

Andrea Mrozek: No, they didn't stop collecting the data. They just chose not to profile it. They make a decision over how much they can include in their release for the general public. Not everything can fit into one document. But we think it is really important and should always be included because the point in (collecting) family data is to put the child at the center.

C: Will they include the data in future publications?

Peter Jon Mitchell: Because we requested it, they confirmed they will post the information in the coming months so it will be available to the Canadian public. We don't know whether they will return to including this information in the next cycle as they have since 1981, but that's what we've requested. We made a submission to Stats Can asking that they include the information on the next census run.

C: Why would Stats Can handle the data as it did?

Peter Jon Mitchell: There were other aspects of the (family form) information they thought were (more) interesting. They've done more work in terms of step-families and complex families, and that kind of thing. So I think they chose to focus there. What we're saying is this is still a really important measure. We know the U.S. releases data on it, we know the U.K. releases data on it, so even to be competitive internationally, it is important information to make public.

AM: I was actually encouraged with some of our correspondence with Stats Can because they emphasized they do collect cohabitation versus marriage data. We had to buy it, but what we’re saying is it should be basic. It should be in the initial (census) release that everyone gets. No one should have to pay for it.

PJM: The original (2017 census) report did look at the living arrangements of children, and broke down intact and non-intact families, but it didn't actually look at marriage: which kids were in married parent families, which kids were in common law families. It’s a trend that’s been followed since 1981 when they first started collecting data on common law separately from marriage. This is something that's actually been growing quite rapidly over those last 36 years. It’s one of the most significant family changes within the last couple of decades. So it really is important to follow this information. I was expecting it to be there. I was ready. Stats Can releases are kind of like Christmas for senior researchers. We're so excited by it. When it wasn't there, I was surprised.  

C: So, that’s the story behind Cardus Family making public the unpublicized data. But why is the data important? What’s its significance?

PJM: About 73 per cent of kids in 1996 were in married parent families. That's down to about 62 per cent within the last census. We see that made up a little bit in increase of lone parent families, but the bigger growth has been in the common law families, which is a distinction we think is important.

C: Why does that 11 per cent drop over two decades matter?

AM: Think about a school classroom. I graduated in 1995, and we have our first data point here in 1996. Even for myself, I look at how the school classroom has changed. I can remember, at my age, the first kid (in class) who had divorced parents. She lived with her dad, and it was unusual then. Now, that would be far from unusual. So think how this shifting dynamic in family forms affects teaching and the classroom. We chose to highlight in the report education outcome changes for children. Educational attainment is different for children depending on the marital status of their parents. That’s just one thing to look at.

C: So there are significant policy implications in these numbers?

AM: Very significant. Although we didn’t highlight this in the report, marriage rates are correlated with fertility rates. So if we have a fertility problem now, and low fertility, we could expect that to get much worse with lower marriage rates. We did highlight the different financial behaviours of marriage versus cohabitation, and married parents versus cohabiting parents. You see a greater degree of sharing finances between married parents, and that is true even in Quebec where cohabitation has largely been taken on as kind of the same as marriage, it’s very de-stigmatized, it’s more or less a normal family form. So, fertility rate, education outcomes, financial and poverty outcomes….

PJM: As common law relationships become more prevalent, some academics say they will stabilize and act more like marriages. Actually, the data suggests common law marriages still remain less stable than marriages, even in Quebec where common law marriages make up about 35 per cent of all couples.

C: There’s instability inherent in being able to get up and leave any time you want?

PJM: That's for sure. So for some people, it might be deliberate to test a relationship and to kind of try out a trial marriage. And for others, it's merely kind of what sociologists call “drifting” into the relationship. You spend more nights together, then your toothbrush moves over, and finally your stuff moves over. For some researchers, when they're issuing surveys, they have trouble trying to pinpoint when (couples) first moved in together because of this drift. So when children come along, that sort of ups the game and changes things.

One of the reasons we pointed out the financial impact is that, as Andrea mentioned, cohabiting couples tend to not pool their money in the same way married couples do. Even when children come along, separation of finances remains. They're not necessarily maximizing the potential sharing resources in the way a married couple might, probably due to the commitment issue as part of long-term planning, long term goals.

C: Isn’t there also a higher likelihood of a child having multiple parents over the course of growing up? So the risk factors for kids would be statistically higher wouldn’t they?

AM: I was just rereading a study by Canadian scholars about the so-called Cinderella effect. Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, psychologists at McMaster University did a study in 1985 on the effects of step-parenting on pre-school children, and found a 40 times increased risk of child abuse for children in step-families contrasted with natural parent families with children the same age. That's pretty devastating. Daly stands by this research today. We just never hear about that. It's not something that comes up and obviously (society is) uncomfortable raising that. We don't want to target one particular family (type), but I think on a research level we shouldn't shy away from discussing outcomes. Particularly, I'd say, pertaining to children.

C: What about situations where couples cohabit for a few years before actually getting married, but then do end up getting married. How does that show up in the data, and what is the effect?

AM: Cohabitation can transfer. It can work differently depending on income level. Low-income people suffer more in cohabitation. If your peer group is largely okay financially, then you may be seeing people living together and getting married and it seems like it's a smooth transition.

PJM: Statistically, data would show that those relationships still tend to be a little bit less stable than those did not cohabit before. It'd be interesting to see where it goes because you're right, that is becoming so much more common now.

The census takes a snapshot but there are other data sets that do follow the structure of relationships. So one of the implications is that people are often delaying marriage for financial reasons. And then they need to commit so much wealth. Marriage used to be the foundation of starting life out together. You marry, you buy the house, then you have the kids. 

Marriage serves as a capstone. You get your finances together, you get your first place, you might even start having kids before marriage. It’s all getting delayed and that actually affects things like fertility rates and so on.

I don't think we talk enough about what marriage actually is. When we actually talk about marriage, we often find that people are talking about weddings and not actually talking about the relationship.

Is it just re-orientating what it is that we mean by marriage? What is that partnership? Is it a cooperation? It's an economic cooperation. Or is it intimacy, raising kids, all these things kind of tied into one dynamic relationship?

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