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


This report was commissioned by the Family, Children and Youth Section of the Department of Justice Canada to continue analyses of data from the Family History and Custody section of the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY). The study is based on data collected on approximately 15,000 children, aged 2 to 13 years at the time of Cycle 2 (1996‑97), who were part of the first cycle of the NLSCY (1994‑95). This is one of Canada's foremost data sources for studying the development and characteristics of Canadian children and their families.

Having these two cycles of data allows the examination of cases in which families had broken apart between 1994‑95 and 1996‑97. This enables, for the first time, analyses based on the situation “before” and “after” certain family transitions, such as parents' separation or family recomposition, thereby providing new insight into the relationship between family change, income and labour force participation. It also makes possible the examination of how custody (viewed as physical custody), father-child contact and child support payments change over time for those parents who were already separated at the time of Cycle 1.


Family type and work and income patterns

In two-parent families, 95 percent of children from birth to age 11 in 1994-95 benefited from the full-time employment income of at least one parent. The most common situation, shared by 43 percent of children, is for both parents to have full-time employment. Just over a quarter of children (27 percent) had one parent working full time, the other part time. Another quarter (25 percent) had a parent at home while the other was in the labour force full time.

In one-parent families, slightly more than 40 percent of children lived with a parent who brings in a full-time employment income. Seventy-eight percent of lone fathers and thirty-nine percent of lone mothers worked full time.

When parents separate

Mothers who had full-time employment before separation are better off financially afterwards than those who did not. Their average annual income of nearly $32,000 is substantially higher than that of other lone mothers (median amount of $20,000) in Cycle 2.

When lone mothers form a conjugal union

The average income of lone mothers rose between Cycles 1 and 2 whether or not women formed a conjugal union, and the lower the income in 1994‑95, the larger the increase two years later.

Characteristics of the two-parent family prior to separation, and custody arrangements when parents separate

The higher the family income before separation, the more likely children are to live in their father's custody or in shared custody afterwards. Income seems to play a more direct role in shared custody arrangements than when father has sole custody, which is to be expected given the need for two family homes in shared custody situations.

Shared custody arrangements are most often chosen by separating couples who are both in the labour force. About 20 percent of children in double-income families were alternating between parents' homes when the parents separated, compared to less than 6 percent of those in families in which one or neither parent was employed.

Children from single-earner families are more likely than other children to be in their father's custody after separation. One fifth of these children (20 percent) remained with their father when their parents separated, compared to less than 8 percent of children with both parents or neither parent in the work force.

The chances are very high (89 percent) that children will live with their mother when parents separate if neither parent had full-time employment.

Family characteristics and child support

Support agreements are more common in higher income families, and payments are also more reliable. If a support agreement existed, payments were made regularly for the majority of children in the highest income families (55 percent); this was the case for only one third of children in the lowest income category (31 percent).

Changes in living arrangement and father-child contact over time

Living arrangements for children in their father's custody are very durable. Although relatively infrequent (7 percent of children in 1994-95), almost all children living with their father in 1994‑95 were still in his care two years later.

Living arrangements for children in their mother's custody are also stable, but the frequency of contact with their father varies over time. Of these, two fifths of the children who had some contact with their father at the start of the period had a different amount of contact by the end of it.

Shared living arrangements appear to be more flexible. Nine tenths of the children with shared living arrangements at Cycle 1 had a different arrangement two years later. More than two fifths (41 percent) lived with their father and half (50 percent) with their mother; almost all of the latter maintained regular contact with their father.

The absence of father-child contact is not necessarily permanent. More than one fifth of children with no contact with their father in 1994-95 had some contact (generally “irregular”) by 1996-97.

Changes in child support payments over time

The absence of child support payments is not necessarily permanent. More than a quarter of children who had received no support for at least six months in 1994‑95 received some support during the following two-year period. Almost half of these payments were being made regularly by 1996-97.

The absence of a child support agreement is not necessarily permanent, although the chance of coming to an agreement later is relatively low. Two thirds of the children (65 percent) for whom there was no agreement in 1994-95 were in the same position two years later. Among those for whom an agreement had been reached during the period, less than half were receiving payments regularly in 1996-97.


Studies of family break-up typically focus on the arrangements made and their formality, and the functioning and adherence to the arrangements. The NSLCY provides an opportunity to examine various pre-break-up characteristics of families, to determine whether there is any relationship to the choices and arrangements made after the break-up.

Specifically, are families' pre-separation earning opportunities, employment choices and employment patterns predictors of post-separation outcomes? Understanding how Canadians organize and live as families in the context of their income and employment choices allows policy makers to plan programs and services, and to consider legislative reforms with a greater appreciation of the implications. Further questions can be answered, with additional cycles of data including how do family arrangements evolve, and in what circumstances? How fixed or flexible are the outcomes? What do the changes typically involve, and how frequently are they made? Furthering research in this area is a high priority, and the value of the NLSCY in gathering these vital data remains of the highest order.

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