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


Collecting data about the same children at different times opens up many possibilities in terms of the type of questions that can be asked and the way in which these questions can be addressed. It is now possible to examine the impact of family change from the point of view of the situation before the change took place, rather than being limited to the consequences of this change. This first phase of research into the impact of parents' family transitions on children's family environment and economic well-being has taken advantage of these new opportunities to explore three main issues: 1) the link between family type, income and the way income-earning is shared by parents within the family, with a particular focus on the impact of two specific family transitions, parental separation and stepfamily formation; 2) the influence of “intact” family characteristics, such as income or parents' labour force participation, on the decisions that separating parents make about custody arrangements and child support, and 3) the changing nature of custody, contact and child support arrangements over time.

The analyses confirm the close association between family structure and the financial resources available for children's upbringing, and clearly illustrate the impact of couple formation or dissolution on a family's financial circumstances. They also highlight the relationship between the number of potential income-earners in a family, the level of income, and the strategies available to parents in terms of balancing income-earning with the other responsibilities of family life. Intact family income and the way parents organize their work schedules have a strong influence on the way parents divide responsibilities for children when they separate: the greater the equality (or interchangeability of roles) of the couple when they are together, the more equal the sharing of responsibilities appears to be when they separate. Nevertheless, as the final analyses showed, custody, contact and child support undergo considerable change in the years following separation, and shared custody is particularly open to change.

What are the implications of this research for social policy? Perhaps the most important message from research into family change is the great diversity of the experience and behaviour of Canadian families—with regard to their family life course, to the income they have at their disposal and the choices they make about balancing income-earning with other family responsibilities. However, it is this very diversity that presents one of the greatest challenges to policy makers, as Joseph Heath put it so cogently in his keynote speech at the Ready Set Go Conference in Ottawa (January 2002). Promoting social justice in a society in which diversity and freedom are fundamental values means reconciling the freedom of choice of individuals with the need to protect the rights of others who may be affected by the choices. The challenge, in this case, is to reconcile parents' freedom of choice in terms of their conjugal life with the responsibilities of parenthood.

Our analysis has revealed considerable variation in certain aspects of the ways that couples balance income-earning with caring for children. Some families choose, or need, to have both parents in the labour force full time; others prefer to have a parent at home all or part of the time to raise the children. Values do not necessarily change when parents separate, although the freedom to live in tune with these values may. Poverty may force some mothers (who had chosen to stay at home with the children) to go out to work; others who were working may feel obliged to reduce their hours or leave their job completely in order to care for their children. Ideally, policy needs to take this into account and to find ways to enable separated parents and children to successfully adapt to changes, and in ways that are most in line with their values, experience and education. Having a job may not be the most satisfactory course for all lone mothers, for example. Our analysis showed that the most affluent single mothers were already fully involved in the labour force before they separated; adequate child care services may certainly help these mothers remain in the labour force after separation. A poorly paid job, however, is not necessarily the best solution for unqualified mothers with little work experience and with young children at home.

Shared custody presents a particularly important challenge to policy makers, with increasing numbers of separating couples deciding to share responsibility for their children's care. With mothers more involved outside the home, fathers are becoming more involved within it, and are more likely to wish to remain fully integrated in the daily lives of their children. Since the demand for greater equality in child-sharing after parental separation is likely to grow, it is essential to understand how shared-custody arrangements evolve and why many couples decide to move to another kind of arrangement. Do they end for negative reasons, because of the organizational difficulties involved in having two residences? Or are they an important step in the process of separation, providing a period during which parents and children adjust to the reality of no longer having daily contact with each other, and easing the passage towards a single residence? NLSCY data are not designed to answer these questions. Qualitative research with families who have experienced shared custody needs to be carried out, not only to understand the dynamics of shared custody, but also to expand the range of possible strategies for sharing children's care. The choices available to separating parents should better reflect the diversity of the needs of Canadian families.

Social policy also must take into account other aspects of the very changeable nature of custody and child support arrangements highlighted in section four of this report. Family life involves constant adjustment in terms of time spent with children and financial investments in them, even when both parents reside with their children. When they do not, the adjustments are even more of a challenge. In an intact family, both parents are normally involved in the decision to have another child, for example, and are therefore willing to accept the adjustments involved. This is obviously not so for separated parents, who may resent the time and money investments made by the “other parent” in additional children, especially if it entails a reduction in the share given to their own. In other words, it is essential to design flexible policies that incorporate the notion of change. No single custody arrangement or child support arrangement can be best for all children and for all time. What is in children's “best interests” at one time may not be at another. Children's needs change and a mother's or father's family or working life may evolve, and successful policies need above all to be able to move with these changes.

Family transitions rarely occur without having a substantial impact on the financial circumstances in which children are raised. Quite simply, moving from a two-parent to a one-parent family decreases family income, and vice-versa. The relative decline in income depends largely on the level of family income and the pattern of income-earning preceding the separation: the greater the contribution of the “absent” parent to the household before the separation, the greater the loss of income following separation. Conversely, income also has an impact on family transitions, influencing the arrangements made by separating parents about their children's physical care and financial support. The present research constitutes the first step of a research program that aims, from the wealth of data provided by consecutive cycles of NLSCY, to gain a better insight into the evolution of these relationships, to create an image of the changing and complex family lives of parents and children, to understand how parents adapt to these changes in terms of sharing responsibilities for their children, and ultimately to improve our knowledge of the factors that facilitate or hamper children's successful adjustment to these changes.

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