Family Relations, Low Income, and Child Outcomes: A Comparison of Canadian Children in Intact-, Step-, and Lone-Parent Families

Article excerpt


Several family changes over recent decades have benefited Canadian children. Smaller family size means that parents can devote more time to a given child. Later childbearing and the greater proportion of families with two incomes enhance the resources that parents can offer. On the other hand, other changes have been less beneficial. In particular, the proportion of children living with lone-parents has continued to climb, as has the proportion of children living in stepfamilies. These changes have introduced considerable diversity in family patterns across Canadian children, both in terms of family types and resources available from parents.

According to recent data from the National Longitudinal Survey on Children and Youth (NLSCY), about one in four Canadian children (aged 0-11) are not living in an intact two parent family, with about one in six living in a lone-parent family and one in twelve living in a stepfamily (Statistics Canada 1998). This has important repercussions with regard to the amount of financial, human, and social capital that comes to children from their parents (Beaujot 2000; Picot and Myles 1996; Ross, Scott, and Kelly 1996; Dooley 1991). In particular, a larger proportion of fathers are not living with their children, and are less involved with daily childcare.

At the same time, it is important to observe that most Canadian children are doing reasonably well. On the whole, recent evidence suggests that the majority of Canadian children are physically, emotionally, and socially healthy (Scott 1996; Canadian Council on Social Development 1998). This paper will further examine which conditions are most likely to lead to difficulties, in intact-, lone-parent, and reconstituted families. As emphasised by Lefebvre and Merrigan (1998), while the majority of children across family types are doing relatively well, the children most at risk are those who are in non-intact homes as well as those living in poor families. As economic hardship is highly associated with family disruption, we also attempt to differentiate the relative importance of income and family structure on child outcomes. After establishing equivalence in the measurement of child outcomes across family types, systematic comparisons will be made across intact-, lone-parent, and stepfamilies.

Prior Studies

In one of the most comprehensive studies of the impact of economic well-being on child outcomes, Duncan and Brooks-Gunn (1997) conclude that both poverty and family structure are relevant to child outcomes. In summarising the collaborative efforts of a dozen research groups working with a wide variety of data sets, they conclude that income has a relatively narrow effect on child outcomes (in terms of both mental health and behavioural problems). Without trivialising the economic hardships experienced by a substantial number of American children, this research demonstrates the relevance of several other factors to the study of child psychosocial morbidity. Clearly the difficulties due to economic disadvantage can serve to disrupt family life and increase the psychological distress of both parents and children. Similarly, the difficulties of marital conflict, divorce, and the absence of a parent, can increase a child's psychological distress. On the other hand, under some circumstances, and especially when chi ldren are in highly conflictual families, divorce can be advantageous to children's well-being. As empahsized by Amato and Booth (1997) "the worse situation for children to be in is either a high-conflict marriage that does not end in divorce or a low-conflict marriage that does end in divorce" (p.238). To further complicate matters, low income status is correlated with higher levels of family tension, conflict, and parental depression--factors associated with negative child outcomes (McLoyd 1990; Lipman et al. 1998). The difficulty rests in efforts to differentiate which are the most fundamental factors. …


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