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Behind the times: families have reinvented themselves during the last three decades, but many of the government programs aimed at supporting families have not.

Take the case of Alicia Gonzales. She runs her own business. Her company employs six other people. Ms. Gonzales deducts Employment insurance (EI) premiums from her staff's wages and adds her company's contribution before sending it to Ottawa each month. But, the law says that Ms. Gonzales, because she's self-employed, can't pay into EI, nor can she collect it.

So, when Alicia Gonzales had her first baby early Saturday morning in 1996 she felt she had to back at her desk 48 hours later. If she closed down her business to look after her child, her employees would have been able to collect EI benefits, but Alicia Gonzales herself wouldn't get a penny.

It's situations such as this one that prompt people like Malcolm Shookner, executive director of the Ontario Social Development Council to say: "There is no family policy in Canada. There are a number of piecemeal policies that affect families, mostly adversely. Families have been left to fend for themselves."

This begs the question of: "Why shouldn't families be left to fend for themselves?"

After all, for most of human history, families have taken care of their own affairs without any government help. And, a sizable chunk of our society says this should still be the way of the world. The only role for government is to provide support for truly needy families.

This was the view of an influential group of MPs during Brian Mulroney's second term in office (1988-1993). Unofficially known as the "caucus committee on family issues" this group of right-wing Conservatives lobbied hard to kill plans for a national day-care program and other policies. The group took aim at the Charter of Rights; its members didn't like the fact that groups such as feminists and homosexuals used the Charter to gain rights. They felt that according rights to gays and lesbians, for example, diminished the value of traditional families. Here's what MP John Reimer had to say: "The demand for individual rights at all costs is disruptive to the family and society."

In general, Mr. Reimer and his colleagues wanted government to back off; to stop passing legislation that they believed was eroding traditional family life. And, there is still strong support for this view. The popularity of the Reform Party is based to some degree on nostalgia for the simpler world of the 1940s and '50s. Back then, husbands worked while wives stayed at home to look after the kids. To a large extent, Canadian family policy was crafted at the time when almost all families took this form.

But, that was then; this is now.

Today, families in Canada take many different forms, but a lot of government policies still operate in the context of the stay-at-home-Mom family. For example, the income tax system Canada Pension Plan cuts a wife's income in half after her husband dies, but the husband still receives full benefits if his wife dies first. Despite the rapid increase in the number of women in the workforce, there is no standardized child care system in place such as many European families take for granted.

The result of family policies that many see as being three or four decades behind the times is confusion.

According to Terrance Hunsley, even the government doesn't know why it runs some programs. In 1994, Mr. Hunsley finished a wide-ranging study of family policy in Canada for the Vanier Institute of the Family. In his report he said that although governments spend billions of dollars a year on "family support" programs, "we're extremely vague in the purposes for which we spend money." Not surprisingly, if we don't know why we're spending this money, Mr. Hunsley concludes "we have no way of determining whether these programs are achieving their purposes."

So, another important question is: "What should be the role of government in family issues?"

For most people, the first answer is income support. And governments spend billions in this area. When Canada's social programs were first put in place they were universal -- everybody benefited from them no matter what their income. As governments have grappled with their growing debts, the notion of universality has gone out the window. Until the late 1980s, every family with children could deduct the same amount in child expenses from its income tax. And, every family with children received a monthly "Baby Bonus" cheque from Ottawa. Now, only lower-income Canadians benefit from these programs. Today, a Canadian family with two children earning $70,000 a year pays exactly the same income tax as a family with no children.

This is a situation the Vanier Institute of the Family doesn't like one little bit. It sees a taxation system that encourages the diversion of money away from raising children: "If you chose to invest in your own individual future by purchasing [retirement savings plans]," the Institute wrote in 1994, "there are substantial tax benefits to be realized. But, if you choose to invest in the future of the nation by committing yourself to the next generation, you are on your own."

Since these changes have taken place, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of children living in poverty in Canada. In 1989, the House of Commons passed a resolution to work towards ending child poverty by the year 2000. By 1996, 456,000 more children had joined the ranks of those living in poverty to bring the total up to 1,472,000. According to Toronto officials, one in three children in Canada's richest city was living in poverty at the start of 1997.

Government cuts to family allowances have played a major role in this and so too has the radical change in Canada's economy. Tens of thousands of well-paid permanent jobs have disappeared to be replaced by poorly paid temporary work. Also, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of lone-parent families. Most of these families are headed by women and they are way more likely than any other family grouping to have low incomes.

As a result of these changes, family incomes have remained static or even declined over the last decade. And, there are fears that some families may never be able to climb out of the glue. Myles Zyblock is with the federal Department of Human Resources, and he's studied this problem. In 1996, Mr. Zyblock wrote that: "If the trend towards increased dependency on government transfers by poor parents continues, the benefits of economic growth may not be transmitted to the poor since they will not share in the gains of economic growth."

What we're looking at here is the possibility of creating a permanent underclass of poor Canadians who are stuck in crummy jobs at best, welfare at worst. What happens then is that the state has to step in more and more frequently to deal with the problems of these non-functioning families. There would be a huge increase in the demand for government funding for: policing, crisis intervention, family counseling, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, family courts, school meal programs, nutritional services, public housing.

And, while some government agencies are trying to cope with a flood of work from those at the bottom of the social ladder, other agencies are trying to deal with a load of problems arriving from those higher up the scale. With more and more two-income families, parents are running into a time famine. There just isn't enough time in a day to hold down two full-time jobs and do an adequate job of raising children. The result is that a great deal of the childrearing job is being dumped onto school teachers.

Teachers in classrooms say they are already burdened with too many tasks that ought to be handled by parents. Teachers have to spend a lot of time showing students how to function in groups; how to develop successful relationships with authority figures; how to develop self-esteem and self-confidence; how to be self-motivated, self-disciplined, and productive -- all jobs that used to be the sole responsibility of families. Teachers are seeing more and more children suffering from living in troubled and over-stressed households. This plays itself out in the classroom as behaviour problems and learning difficulties. It's situations such as these which caused gloom to descend over the Ontario Premier's Council on Health, Well-being, and Social Justice. In 1994, the Council issued its report which said, in part:

"We are in danger of losing the living standard and social stability we have created, with hard work and commitment, over the years. It is not that our support and helping systems have suddenly become dysfunctional. But they are being overtaken by a massive change in society and the economy.

"Because of the magnitude of change, particularly in the economy, the children and youth that we have traditionally assumed would `make it' are at increased risk.

"If a significant number of young people who come of age now and into the next century lose hope of being participating members in the economy, if they do not find a future for themselves as full and active members of our society, what does that say about our future ... as a country?"


1. For many years, the idea of a guaranteed annual income for Canadians has been put forward by social reformers. Appoint a team of students to investigate this idea and prepare a report as a starter for class discussion.

2. Michael Valpy, writing in the Globe and Mail, makes these points: "The transfer of child-raising from family to the community is a major cultural shift. Increasingly, Canadians expect institutions outside the family to discipline and socialize their children, to teach them to think and behave morally and ethically, to provide their sex education, to care for them through most of their waking hours. Along with that shift has come a cultural downgrading of the importance of parenting -- in particular, motherhood -- and of children." Discuss these comments.
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Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Mar 1, 1997
Previous Article:Going over the edge.
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