Thursday, February 12, 2009

Connecting poverty and family breakdown

NO. 62
February 12, 2009
The eReview provides analysis on public policy relating to Canadian families and marriage.

Join us for our conference on March 12, 2009. Internationally renowned speakers include the Right Honourable Iain Duncan Smith (United Kingdom), Kay Hymowitz (United States) and Dr. Gabor Maté (Canada). Come for the IMFC conference and stay for the Manning Networking Conference on March 13 and 14. Please click here for more information and to register.

Connecting poverty and family breakdown

By Peter Jon Mitchell, Research Analyst, Institute of Marriage and Family Canada

Telling Canadians who have lost their businesses and jobs that a recession is not a crisis but a moral victory would be insulting. But just last month United Nations Population Fund representative Arie Hoekman made an equally offensive declaration when he reportedly suggested that family breakdown advances human rights. Speaking at a colloquium in Mexico, Hoekman praised family fragmentation saying, “we are in the presence of a weakening of the patriarchal structure, as a result of the disappearance of the economic base that sustains it and because of the rise of new values centered in the recognition of fundamental human rights." [1]

In actual fact, family breakdown, unwed childbearing and divorce are major contributors to poverty. Lone-parent families experience the highest rates of family poverty in Canada. [2] The majority of these families are headed by women, many of whom have experienced a separation or divorce. [3] Of all single-parent families living below the Low-Income Cut-Off, over ninety percent are headed by women. [4] This is hardly a cause for celebration.

Author Kay Hymowitz, who will be speaking at the upcoming IMFC conference, wrote in her book, Marriage and Caste in America,

“[F]amily breakdown lies at the heart of our nation’s most obstinate social problems, especially poverty and inequality.” [5] She argues that America is becoming a nation of separate and unequal families with marriage acting as the dividing line. [6]

Nor is family breakdown a victory for children. Research continues to confirm that married-parent families are good for children while kids in less stable family forms face greater disadvantage. [7]

Family fragmentation hurts those who experience it, and it burdens communities. Placing additional strain on social programs, family breakdown has fiscal implications for education, justice and poverty programs. A 2008 study cautiously estimated that divorce and unwed childbearing cost the American taxpayer (U.S.) $112 billion a year. [8] The report’s author argues that even a small decrease in family breakdown could offset significant costs. [9]

Healthy families are the building blocks of strong societies and provide benefits to members that governments cannot. Hymowitz argues, “As the core cultural institution, marriage orders life in ways we only dimly understand.

It carries with it signals about how we should live, signals that are in line with both our economy and our politics in the largest sense.” [10] Marriage is not merely a private decision but a public good, protecting children who are among societies most vulnerable members.

Championing marriage is not a judgment of those who are not married but rather, a simple recognition that marriage is good for society. Good public policy should support marriage, not cheer its demise.


Canadian public policy makers should take interest in the fate of the family. The breakdown and fragmentation of families harms society and places financial strain on social services. Responsible public policy should recognize the following:

  1. Family breakdown is a contributing factor to poverty. Broken family relationships often create economic hardship. While marriage is not a poverty vaccine, a 2005 Canadian study found that a low income mother who marries increases her chances of exiting poverty in one year from 29 percent to 84 percent. [11] Anti-poverty programs must grapple with family fragmentation.

  1. The benefit of marriage and healthy families to society can be enhanced by good public policy. Moving towards a family-based tax system as other industrialized countries have done, can reduce fiscal burdens and stress on families. Similarly, low income working families on the Working Income Tax Benefit would find further relief if it included a marriage bonus that recognized the added cost of having two adults in the home. [12] These policy initiatives would make marriage more financially viable.

  1. The United Nations Population Fund’s representatives should be held accountable for their statements. As a significant financial supporter, Canadian decision makers should determine if the views of the UNPF are consistent with values of Canadian taxpayers.

The implications of family breakdown are severe. To suggest that family fragmentation advances human rights is an insult. Instead, governments should recognize the impact that family breakdown, including unwed childbearing and divorce, have on our communities. The institution of marriage is good for society and deserves support and protection.


1. Arie Hoekman as quoted in Hoffman, M.C. (2009, Feb. 3) United Nations Population Fund Leader Says Family Breakdown is a Triumph for Human Rights. Life Site News. Retrieved February 3, 2009 from

2. Taylor, P.S. (2007) Family poverty in Canada: Raising incomes and strengthening families. Canadian Family Views. Ottawa, Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, p. 6. Retrieved February 3, 2009 from

3. Ibid., p. 10.

4. Ibid.

5. Hymowitz, K. (2006) Marriage and Caste in America. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, p. 3.

6. Ibid., pp. 4-5.

7. For a survey of research see W. Bradford Wilcox, et al. (2005) Why Marriage Matters. Twenty-Six conclusions from the social sciences, 2nd Edition. New York: Institute for American Values.

8. Scafidi, B. (2008) The taxpayer cost of divorce and unwed child bearing: First-ever estimates for the nation and for all fifty states. New York: Institute for American Values.

9. Ibid.

10. Hymowitz, p. 10.

11. Finnie, R. and Sweetman, A. (2003). Poverty dynamics:

Empirical evidence for Canada. Canadian Journal of Economics

vol.36, no. 4, pp. 291-325.

12. Taylor, pp. 14-18.

Permission is granted to reprint or broadcast this information with appropriate attribution to the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada

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