Linking Family Change, Parents' Employment and Income and Children's Economic Well-Being: A Longitudinal Perspective


This report builds on an earlier analysis of custody, access and child support data gathered during Cycle 1 of the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY) in 1994-95 (Marcil-Gratton and Le Bourdais, 1999). The NLSCY is a panel survey conducted jointly by Human Resources Development Canada and Statistics Canada. More than 22,000 children, aged 0 to 11 years were first surveyed during the winter of 1994-95; however, because of financial constraints, not all of these children were retained in the sample for the second cycle.[1] This study is based on approximately 15,000 children present for both cycles, and aged between 2 and 13 years when surveyed in 1996-97. Many topics are covered in the NLSCY, but this report draws largely on data from the Family and Custody History section of the survey. This section provides complete retrospective conjugal and parental histories of each child's biological parents up to the time of the survey. For children whose parents separated or never lived together, additional information is given related to custody arrangements, contact with the non-custodial parent and regularity of child support payments, both at the time of the separation and the survey.

An analysis of retrospective questions on family history and custody arrangements at Cycle 1 revealed the complexity of the family life course of Canadian children born near the end of the 20th century (Marcil-Gratton and Le Bourdais, 1999). With parental separation more frequent and occurring earlier in children's lives, the children's family environment expanded as their parents “went their separate ways”—remarrying or forming a common-law union with a different partner and having children within these new unions, thus adding stepparents, stepsiblings and half-siblings to their children's family network. Each change in the parental life course entails a “family transition” in that of their children. By Cycle 2 of the survey (1996-97), when these children were 2 to 13 years of age (with an average age just over 8), almost one quarter had experienced at least one transition in their family environment. This proportion varies depending on the age of the children at the time of the survey (see Table 1), from 14 percent at the age of 2 to 3 years, rising to almost 30 percent of children among those reaching adolescence.

The likelihood of experiencing family change also depends on whether children were born within a conjugal union and according to the type of this union. Most children (93 percent) were born within a conjugal union, to married or cohabiting parents; for these children, their parents' separation is the first family transition. This experience is much more usual among children born within a common-law union (44 percent), than among those born within marriage, particularly when the marriage was not preceded by a period of cohabitation (12 percent). Of the minority (7 percent) of children born outside a conjugal union, more than three quarters (76 percent) had experienced at least one family transition. This higher proportion is largely a product of the nature of the first transition, however. Born to essentially “separated” parents, the first transition involves union formation rather than dissolution, as their mother or father enter into a union either with each other or with a new partner.

Table 1: Proportion of children experiencing at least one family transition between birth and Cycle 2, according to their age at the survey, and the type of parents' union at birth, NLSCY, 1996-97
  a) Age group at Cycle 2  
2-3 yrs 4-5 yrs 6-7 yrs 8-9 yrs 10-11 yrs 12-13 yrs Total
Percentage of children making at least one family transition by 1996-97 14.2 20.9 25.6 26.6 26.6 29.2 23.9

  b) Type of parents' union at child's birth  
Direct marriage Marriage preceded by cohabitation Cohabitation Not in union Total
Percentage of children making at least one family transition by 1996-97 12.3 19.9 43.6 75.7 23.9

The transitions parents make into and out of conjugal unions generally translate, in their children's lives, as a movement from one type of family to another, from an intact family to a lone-parent family, or from a lone-parent family to a stepfamily, for instance. These types of transitions are the basis of the analyses in this report. Family mobility is just one of the processes affecting children, however. Families are in a state of constant flux at many levels. Economically, for example, family income rises and falls as parents are laid off or promoted at work, or as mothers enter or return to the labour force. However, while changes in income and employment may occur independently of family change, family transitions rarely occur without triggering important changes in these two areas. In a society in which discontinuity is on the rise, both in the workplace and the family, it is important to explore the links between the diverse facets of children's environment. With Cycle 1 data alone, family transitions could not be linked to changes in other areas because most relevant socio-economic and child development data referred only to the situation at the time of the survey. The addition of information collected from the same children two years later, at the time of Cycle 2 of the survey (1996-97), removed many of these limitations, making possible the longitudinal approach used in much of the present research.

This report has three main sections, each of which uses “before” and “after” data (from Cycles 1 and 2) to throw new light on specific questions.

  • The first section focusses on the link between family type, income and the way income earning is shared by parents within the family. It looks, in particular, at the effect that separation and stepfamily formation have on family income levels, and examines how this relates to the parents' labour force involvement.
  • The second section tackles the question of how couples organize the physical care and economic support of their children when they separate. For the first time, it is possible toexplore how “pre-break-up” family characteristics, such as income levels and labour force participation, influence the decisions parents make about custody arrangements and child support when they separate.
  • The third section focusses on the changing nature of custody, contact and child support over time. It examines how living arrangements and father-child contact, on the one hand, and child support agreements and payments, on the other, evolved during the two-year period between Cycles 1 and 2 for children whose parents were already living apart at Cycle 1.
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