York study finds that poverty likely to endure among young single parents

The younger you become a single parent, the greater the likelihood that you and your child will be at risk of poverty, a new study reveals.

York Professor Anne-Marie Ambert (right) has released a report based on extensive research of one-parent families (OPFs) in Canada, in which she finds that the success of OPFs is strongly related to the parent’s age. Ambert is a professor of sociology in York’s Faculty of Arts.

In 2001, more than 16 per cent of all families with dependent children (1.3 million families) were classified by Statistics Canada as OPFs, due to marital breakdown, widowhood or non-conjugal birth. Roughly 90 per cent of those one-parent families were headed by women, the study reveals.

“The younger that an individual becomes a parent, the more likely it is that both parent and child will always be at risk of being – or becoming – poor,” Ambert writes. “The main reason is obvious: a young parent, especially an adolescent, is less likely to have pursued educational goals and is more likely to be unemployed.”

Ambert’s research also concludes that such families are more likely to endure multiple moves, multiple cohabitations and dissolutions, and a cycle of inter-generational poverty. She notes that at the other end of the OPF spectrum, single mothers in their 30s who planned a birth or adoption, are at much lower risk of poverty. The combination of financial security and a support network tend to improve the outcomes for these OPFs, so that they are comparable to two-parent families.

Left: Ambert’s study finds the younger an individual becomes a parent, the more likely it is that both are at risk of becoming poor

Age is not the only factor to increase the risk of poverty among OPFs. Poverty itself is the greatest cause of one-parent families, Ambert says, and “not only do they contribute to poverty, they are, above all, issued from poverty.” More than half of single women with children come from poverty themselves, according to the study. “Adolescents with low educational and vocational expectations may believe that they have little to lose with an unplanned pregnancy, and indeed may seek the fleeting social status that comes with a new baby. However, for the child, being born into poverty is the most detrimental factor for that child’s lifelong outcomes. From a children’s rights perspective, the one right that children seem to be deprived of is to be born under circumstances that will give them equal opportunities in life. How many children would want poverty?”

Ambert argues that a cultural shift towards rights and individual gratification has been at the expense of responsibilities. “A child is not someone’s right, but someone’s responsibility,” the report concludes. She argues in favour of parenting courses and workshops that are mandatory for all – and at all socioeconomic levels – starting in Grade 8, before too many adolescents become sexually active.

She describes a paradox which she says stems from our individualistic values and results in a clash between procreation as a right, and the rights of those who have been created. “Very few cultural stigmas or barriers remain against single mothers in our society today, but there is little social support extended to the children born into OPFs,” she says. “More often than in the past, young single mothers will keep their babies instead of placing them for adoption; many of these young women are unaware of the difficulties they and their children may well face.”

The 35-page study, One-Parent Families: Characteristics, Causes, Consequences and Issues, was released recently as part of a series by the Vanier Institute of the Family for its Contemporary Family Trends series. To view the full study, visit www.vifamily.ca and click on the “What’s New” section.

More about Anne-Marie Ambert

Ambert specializes in parent-child relationships, the social construction of childhood and parenthood, and the effects of delinquency on parents. She has authored several books including Families in the New Millennium (2001) and The Web of Poverty (1998), as well as numerous articles and book chapters on related topics. Her teaching interests include the family, poverty, adult development, mental health, gerontology, and research methods. Ambert is a member of the editorial board for the Journal of Marriage and the Family.