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Calgary Herald

That 'piece of paper' is very valuable to kids

The Calgary Herald, Calgary, AB, By Licia Corbella, June 13, 2009

"We don't need no piece of paper from the city hall, keeping us tied and true --no . . ."

--  Joni Mitchell from My Old Man (1971)

As much as I admire Joni Mitchell, the growing acceptance and prevalence of shacking up is not just some benign hippy-dippy sentiment, it's an extremely costly reality, not only for Canada's coffers but, Read More ..portantly, for the health and safety of Canada's children. That's the conclusion of a new report entitled Private Choices, Public Costs: How Failing Families Cost Us All, by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.

Marriage, or that "little piece of paper", holds a lot of value, particularly for the well-being of children, write report authors Andrea Mrozek and Rebecca Walberg.

"Children with cohabiting parents are five times more likely to experience a parental split than kids of married parents," states the report. In other words, cohabiting couples with children have a 500 per cent greater likelihood of breaking up than their married counterparts!

To paraphrase another song, not only is breaking up hard to do, but it tends to throw the offspring of that cohabiting couple into poverty and dependence on the state.

Cohabiting is a trend that has grown exponentially through the decades. In 1961, 92 per cent of all Canadian families were headed by a married couple compared to just 68.6 per cent of families today. It's even lower in Quebec, where just 54.5 per cent of Quebec families are headed by married parents.

So, what's the big deal? This is a free country? True enough, but family breakdown is not free. It's extremely costly.

Single-parent families are much more likely to live in poverty than couple families. Currently, only 8.2 per cent of couple households with children live below Statistics Canada's low-income cut-off. In contrast, 16 per cent of single-father households live below the poverty line and a whopping 32.2 per cent of single-mother households live in poverty: "On average across Canada, single-parent families are 8.8 times more likely to depend upon welfare than couple households."

Mrozek and Walberg write that the monetary cost of serving broken families in 2005-2006, was, conservatively, almost $7 billion. "If we were able to cut family breakdown in half, we would save $1.78 billion annually," states the report, which acknowledges that $1.78 billion is not half of $7 billion, "because we assume that if 50 per cent fewer families were broken, about 50 per cent of those would still remain in poverty. These are very conservative estimates, based upon very realistic measures of what could result if family stability were to improve."

But money is just part of the cost. Whether couples are married or not "is a remarkably accurate predictor of outcomes for children on many social science scales, even when economic factors are excluded," write Mrozek and Walberg.

"Children of married parents typically do better on various outcome measures --they are less likely to use drugs, and less likely to drop out of school, and they become sexually active later than children in other family structures, among other things."

Anne-Marie Ambert, professor emeritus of sociology at York University in Toronto, who has conducted many studies in the same vein, states that according to a U. S. study, boys raised without a father are twice as likely to be jailed, though boys raised in stepparent families are at an even greater risk of turning to criminality.

That now seemingly quaint adage, "we're staying together for the sake of the kids," doesn't sound so odd now, does it?

Mrozek and Walberg add that most children raised by single parents turn out fine and "in some circumstances, a divorce or single parenting is the best of a range of difficult options." Indeed, most of us who know single moms or dads view them as heroes. However, as the figures show, the negative risks grow exponentially for children in single-parent homes.

What's more, there is evidence that the long-term reliance on welfare has detrimental effects on society and individuals.

"Take England, for example, where decades of family breakdown and poor social policy have led to children being raised in homes where they've never seen a functioning marriage or a working adult," states the report. In 2004-2005, England spent 132.5 billion pounds (about $232 billion Cdn) on welfare --the largest portfolio of any government agency.

Meanwhile, Canada's income tax system still penalizes married couples by disallowing income splitting. It's a counter-productive policy that encourages shacking up and discourages the more stable institution of marriage.

So, yes, pieces of paper hold enormous importance in this world; after all, how many of us would dare buy a house or car without receiving a piece of paper in return? Unthinkable, isn't it?

Paper is important. Parents who don't have that "piece of paper" are literally putting the well-being of their kids at risk.

Don't like this column? It makes you angry? Relax, it's just a piece of paper.

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