Single motherhood & poverty

Jenny (
Mon, 8 Mar 1999 10:54:26 -0800 (PST)

Poverty is single and she has a child
A concerted political effort improved life for the elderly.
Would it work for today's poor?

                        Monday, March 8, 1999
                        BRUCE LITTLE, Canada Gobe&Mail

                        The headlines for the latest study of family
                        incomes from Statistics Canada were predictable:
                        The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There
                        was some truth to that wild simplification, but it
                        utterly missed the most fascinating material to
                        come out of the report.

                        There's no question that the last two recessions --
                        in the early 1980s and early 1990s -- were tougher
                        on low- and middle-income families than on
                        upper-income families. Between 1970 and 1995,
                        the top 30 per cent saw their share of all income
                        increase 1.9 per cent (to 55.5 per cent from 53.6),
                        while the bottom 70 per cent saw their share fall
                        1.9 points (to 44.5 per cent from 46.4). Most of
                        the shift occurred in the wake of the two

                        But when you look at how the income pie is
                        shared, there's a big difference between individuals
                        and families. Families come in all shapes and sizes,
                        and they have more opportunities to gather income
                        than individuals do.

                        What is most striking from the Statistics Canada
                        study are the huge changes in the nature of
                        families, and their income, over a quarter-century.
                        Analyst Abdul Rashid's report appears in the
                        agency's quarterly publication Perspectives on
                        Labour and Income.

                        Using census data, Mr. Rashid took the total
                        number of families, split them into 10 equal groups
                        (called deciles) and ranked them according to
                        income. In effect, he provides answers to the
                        questions: Who's rich? Who's poor? And were
                        these the same kinds of people in 1995 as in 1970?

                        Because the changes are most evident at the
                        extremes of the income scale, we'll focus on the
                        bottom and top deciles, and only occasionally stray
                        into the others. Those at the bottom had income
                        under $15,158 in 1995, compared with more than
                        $98,253 for those at the top.

                        Begin with age. In 1970, fewer than 12 per cent of
                        Canadians were 65 or older, yet they accounted for
                        more than 26 per cent of the families in the bottom
                        decile. To a considerable degree, extreme poverty
                        was a problem of the old, which is why politicians
                        of the day worked so hard to improve old-age
                        security and launched the Canada Pension Plan.

                        The politicians succeeded. By 1995, more than 15
                        per cent of all families were headed by someone 65
                        or older, but they constituted a mere 6 per cent of
                        the bottom income group. The old had not grown
                        rich by any stretch, but many had moved up the
                        income scale; they accounted for 30 per cent of
                        those in the third income decile, double their share
                        in 1970.

                        In 1995, the bottom 10 per cent were still receiving
                        about 1.5 per cent of all income, just as they had in
                        1970. But if the old have moved up the income
                        ladder, who are today's poor?

                        Largely, they are single mothers. In 1970, they
                        headed just over 7 per cent of all families; by
                        1995, the figure topped 12 per cent. That's a huge
                        jump -- nearly double -- and it was reflected in the
                        figures for the very poor. Single mothers accounted
                        for 24 per cent of those in the bottom decile in
                        1970 and a staggering 40 per cent in 1995.

                        What about the top end of the income scale, the
                        best-off 10 per cent? Again, the group's
                        composition has changed dramatically. In 1970,
                        both the husband and wife had jobs in 50 per cent
                        of the families. In 45 per cent, only the husband

                        So even then, it seems, and even in the
                        highest-income families, the Leave It To Beaver
                        stereotype of the stay-at-home mom was outdated.
                        (Single parents and families in which the husband
                        did not work made up the other 5 per cent.)

                        By 1995, both the husbands and wives were
                        working in 81 per cent of those upper-income
                        homes. Just below them, in the ninth decile, the
                        figure was 79 per cent, up from 58 per cent in
                        1970. The trend toward two-income families is
                        evident across all income groups, but it's most
                        intense at the upper end.

                        Over the 25-year period Mr. Rashid studied, it's
                        likely that many families moved around from decile
                        to decile. A young married couple, both working,
                        might give up an income for several years when
                        one (almost always the wife) stays home to raise
                        the children. As the kids reach school age, her
                        return to work would restore the second income.

                        Clearly, as Mr. Rashid says, changes in family
                        structure and the work patterns of spouses can
                        affect income, both up and down. More single
                        moms depressed overall family income, but more
                        dual earners enhanced it.

                        It's more important to understand changes among
                        the bottom 10 per cent because most governments
                        try to do something about poverty. If they don't
                        understand that young mothers and their kids
                        moved into the poverty neighbourhood as the old
                        moved out, they're likely to come up with
                        wrong-headed policies.

                        It would be easy to blame recessions (and rant at
                        the Bank of Canada for causing them) for the
                        slightly wider overall gap between high- and
                        low-income families. But just as it took very
                        focused action a generation ago to alleviate poverty
                        among the old, it would take far more than
                        interest-rate cuts today to ease the poverty of
                        single mothers and their children.

Amazing Facts appears every Monday. Bruce Little may be reached at