Selected Statistics on Canadian Families and Family Law: Second Edition


Family Type

While the number of people living in families in Canada has been slowly declining, most people (84 percent) still live in a family setting. In 1996, married couples with children represented 45 percent of all families; 29 percent were married couples without children; 15 percent were lone-parent families; 6 percent were common-law couples with children; and 6 percent were common-law couples without children.

Figure 1: Family Type as a Proportion of all Families (1996)

Families with Children

The number of families with children, as a proportion of all families in Canada, has not changed much over the past decade. In 1986, the number of families with children constituted 67 percent of all families. In 1991 and 1996, the number of families with children was 66 percent.

Although the proportion of families with children has remained stable, the types of families with children have changed. As indicated in Figure 2, the proportion of married-couple families with children decreased steadily from 1986 (77 percent) to 1996 (69 percent). This decrease was accompanied by increases in the numbers of both common-law families with children and lone-parent families. Common-law families represented 4 percent of all families with children in 1986, and this figure rose to 8.5 percent in 1996. The number of lone-parent families increased from 19 percent of all families with children in 1986 to 22 percent in 1996. Figure 2 illustrates these trends.

Figure 2: Families with Children by Family Type (1986-1996)

Family Context at Birth

Children are being born into very different types of families than they were thirty years ago. In the sixties, most children were born to first-time married parents, that is, parents who had never cohabited nor previously lived with another partner. Today, almost as many children are born into two-parent families but, increasingly, their parents are not married.

Figure 3: Family Type at Birth for Various Cohorts of Children

Figure 3 shows that nearly all children born in the early 1960s were born to parents who married without living together before (over 90 percent). The situation has since changed radically. In the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY) 1993-1994 cohorts, children born to parents who married without living together beforehand represented less than 40 percent of all births. The biggest changes were in the proportion of children born to married parents who first lived together (nearly 33 percent), and the proportion of children born to cohabiting parents (20 percent). The changes were most marked in Quebec, where only 23 percent of the children in the 1993-1994 cohorts were born to parents who married without prior cohabitation. Barely one-half of all births were to married parents and 43 percent were to common-law couples. The proportion of out-of-wedlock births reached 50 percent if one takes into consideration children born to lone mothers.

Lone-Parent Families

Lone-parent families are much more likely to be headed by women than men. For example, in 1996 women headed 83 percent of all lone-parent families, while men headed only 17 percent of lone-parent families. Although the number of lone-parent families has been increasing, the proportion of female to male lone parents has remained relatively stable over the past decade.

The majority of female lone parents in 1991 were divorced (32.5 percent) or separated (24.6 percent). Similarly, most male lone parents were divorced (33.6 percent) or separated (37.6 percent). Men and women are less often lone parents due to the death of a spouse (20.6 percent and 23.4 percent respectively) compared to the 1950s and 1960s, when almost two-thirds of male and female lone parents were widowers or widows.

Figure 4: Marital Status of Male and Female Lone Parents (1991)

Although most children under the age of 17 belong to families in which the parents are married (73 percent), a significant proportion of children belong to lone-parent families (17 percent). Most of these children live in lone-parent families headed by women (15 percent) rather than men (2 percent).

Figure 5: Proportion of Children in Private Households by Family Type (1996)

While the proportion of children living with just one parent has remained constant at approximately 17 percent over the past five years, the actual number of children living with a lone parent increased from 1.5 million in 1991 to just under 1.8 million in 1996. This represents an increase of 19 percent. Almost one in every five children in Canada lived with a lone parent in 1996, and four out of five of these children (84 percent) lived with a female lone parent.

Family Income

The average family income in Canada increased slightly for some family types in the period between 1993 and 1997, as shown in Table 1. For instance, in 1997 the average income of two-parent families with children (one and two earners) increased by 3.3 percent from 1993. The average family income for both male- and female-headed lone-parent families also increased by 4.8 percent over the same period. On the other hand, in lone-parent families where the mother is not working, the average annual income decreased by 13.2 percent in the 5 year period. In 1997, the average annual income of male lone-parent families ($38,101) was lower than two-parent families with children where there is one earner ($46,308), and was even lower for female lone-parent families where the mother is working ($27,923) or where the mother is on social assistance

Table 1: Average Annual Income by Family Type, 1993-1997 (Constant 1997 Dollars)
Family Type 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997
Census Families1 54,803 55,730 55,877 56,162 56,628
Two-parent families with children2 61,527 62,992 62,931 63,554 63,235
One earner 45,774 48,062 45,650 46,054 46,308
Two earners 63,722 65,791 65,844 66,375 66,299
Three or more earners 79,358 79,409 80,797 82,265 80,224
Other two-parent families3 79,837 79,849 78,483 82,242 79,154
Lone-parent families 2 25,544 26,690 26,662 26,088 26,773
Male lone-parent families 36,073 36,514 36,658 38,501 38,101
Females lone-parent families 23,784 25,093 24,961 24,032 24,837
No earner 14,660 14,457 14,906 13,496 12,883
One earner 26,362 27,780 27,211 27,632 27,923
Other lone-parent families 3 4,622 43,371 42,673 44,080 44,937

Family Poverty

Low income cutoffs (LICO) are frequently used to determine poverty levels, although Statistics Canada warns that they "have no official status, and [Statistics Canada] does not promote their use as poverty lines" (Poverty Profile 1996). LICOs represent levels of gross income where people spend disproportionate amounts of money for food, shelter and clothing. Low-income Canadians spend 20 percent more of their gross income on the necessities of life than the average Canadian family.

The number of families with an income below the cutoffs in Canada was approximately 1,230,000 in 1996, or 14.8 percent of all families (Table 2). Most of these families (31 percent) were single-parent mothers or couples under the age of 65 with children (30 percent). Of all the other family types with an income below the cutoffs, 16 percent were childless couples under 65; 6 percent were couples 65 or older; and 17 percent were classified as other (these would include families such as couples with children 18 or older, families headed by single fathers, and brothers and sisters who live together).

Table 2: Families and Poverty (1996)
  Family Type Poor Families
Number %
Single mothers 379,000 31
Couples under 65 with children 370,000 30
Other families 204,000 17
Childless couples under 65 199,000 16
Couples 65 or older 8,000 6
Total 1,230,000 100

Poverty rates vary with family type, sex, age, employment, education, housing and the population of the area in which people live. Family type is probably the most important factor in the risk of poverty and the group with the highest poverty rate is single-parent mothers under the age of 65 with children under the age of 18. Over sixty percent of these families are poor (see Figure 6). Moreover, the poverty rate for the relatively small number of families led by single mothers under the age of 25 was incredibly high. In 1995, the rate was 83 percent, and in 1996 it was up to 91.3 percent. The comparable rates for families led by single mothers aged 25 to 44 years old was 61.2 percent, and 41.1 percent for single mothers aged 45 to 64 years old.

Figure 6: Poverty Rates by Family Type, 1996