When details of the 2011 Canadian Census were released, news outlets quickly pointed to the growing diversity of families. While marriage remains the dominant family form, the media noted the slow decline in the share of married families among all families. Today there is little talk of marriage in Canada. When marriage does come up, most merely note that its decline is clearing the way for the new wonders of rising family diversity or praise the fact that for nearly a decade we have had “marriage equality.”
Except that we don’t. Marriage in Canada is anything but equal.
Our American friends know something Canadians have yet to consider. In articles from the Atlantic to the New York Times, Americans are debating the institution of marriage not as an equalizer but a dividing line between haves and have-nots. They are debating marriage in the economic context, as a financial matter. It is difficult to think of popular Canadian publications that have acknowledged this debate in America, let alone pondered whether such divisions cut across income lines in our “home and native land.”
The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, an Ottawa-based think tank where we work, is breaking the silence. Income inequality and lack of social mobility are less severe in Canada than the United States, yet we wondered if the decline in the share of married families in Canada has occurred equally across income lines. Earlier this week, we released a new report, The Marriage Gap Between Rich and Poor Canadians: How Canadians are split into haves and have-nots along marriage lines. And while the title seems to give the story away, we did uncover a few surprises.
Canadians fancy themselves equal, tolerant, fair, and polite—at least outside the hockey rink. For all the good that comes from valuing diversity, it has muted many important and reasonable discussions around family structure and family form. Canadians are slow to embrace the idea that marriage might offer greater stability and economic advantage. At the same time, we believe that if Canadians can see the degree to which the economic advantages of marriage are clustered among the wealthy, they may be open to thinking through the ramifications and will agree that these goods should not be limited to the wealthy alone.
Our project reveals a significant marriage gap between high-earning Canadian families and middle- and lower-income earning families. While the share of married families remained remarkably stable among high-income earners over three and a half decades, the share of marriage among middle- and low-income earners has declined. Despite severe decline in marriage in the 1980s and 1990s, the data indicate that the decline showed signs of leveling out in the 2000s. We discovered that over the last thirteen years there have been signs of a small but present recovery of the marriage share among certain age groups of low- and middle-income earners.
Here’s how we went about examining the relationship between income and marriage in Canada. We divided Canadians into income quartiles, with the top representing the highest quarter of income earners and the bottom representing the lowest quarter of income earners. We combined the two middle quartiles as a proxy for the middle class. Our broad measure of income included earned and investment income, pensions, transfers from government, and alimony.
The better to understand the data, we grouped income earners into three age groups: people less than 35 years of age, those aged 35-54 years, and those 55 years old and over.
Using special tabulations from Statistics Canada’s Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics (SLID), we determined the marriage share within each of the three income groups over the thirty-five year period between 1976 and 2011. The marriage share is the measure of all families (as defined by the Canadian census) that include a pair of married or common-law spouses. This includes same-sex marriages after 2006. The SLID defines children as those under 25 years old who have never been married and live with one or both parents.
Examining data from the past thirty-five years, we saw some alarming results. Back in 1976, fully 95 percent of the highest income quartile included a married or common-law spouse. But in the same year, only 25 percent of the lowest income quartile could say the same. For the middle class, the percentage of families including married couples was 68 percent.
Contrast this with 2011, when the marriage share declined marginally to 86 percent among high-income families. But for those in the lowest income quartile, the marriage share was cut in half, falling to just 12 percent. In the middle class, the marriage share dropped dramatically, all the way down to 49 percent.
The greatest portion of married/common-law unions was consistently found in the highest income quartile. Marriage was already in decline prior to our reference period, but during the thirty-five-year reference period, the decline in marriage among the highest income earners was the least severe relative to the other income quartiles.
Marriage is least represented among the bottom quartile, and the 1998-2011 period data indicate that common-law unions are also least common here. This is consistent with other income data that suggest single adults and households with single mothers are most likely to experience low income levels.
Finally, marriage among the middle two quartiles falls in between the lowest and highest quartiles. Based on percentage points, the severest decline in marriage/common-law unions has occurred among middle-income earners. In 1976, the gap between the highest quartile and the middle quartile was about 27 percentage points. By 2011, that gap widened to about 37 percentage points. During the same period, the gap between the middle and the bottom narrowed by about 6 percentage points.
Results for the highest income earners
The very high share of married families in the upper income quartile (across all age groups) is striking. The gap between the upper quartile and the rest of society has increased over time.
Results for middle income earners
The share of married families fell steadily in the middle income quartiles. As mentioned, in 1976, 68 percent of these families had a married couple. In 1990 that number was down to 57 percent. It declined through the 1990s but has since leveled off at just below 50 percent.
Results for lowest income earners
The share of married families dropped from 25 percent in 1976 to a low of only 11 percent in 1998. However, over the last 13 years, it increased slightly to 12 percent. This increase was most pronounced for those aged 35 to 54. Their married share rose from 14 percent in 1998 to over 20 percent by the mid-2000s.
Certainly, readers of Public Discourse do not need to be reminded that marriage protects against poverty. “Divorce and unmarried childbearing increase poverty for both children and mothers, and married couples seem to build more wealth on average than singles and cohabiting couples,” write the authors of “Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences.”
Stable marriages and families contribute to economic prosperity. When the institution of marriage brings together shared economic resources and human capital in a lifelong commitment, personal prosperity and the economic well-being of society improve.
Yet Canadian policymakers have been reluctant to discuss the role of marriage and family structure in economic wellbeing. As sociologist Brad Wilcox has pointed out, “policymakers who feel more comfortable talking about metrics than marriages need to understand that marriage could be one of the most important metrics.” As rhetoric around “middle-class families” is heating up in Canadian policy circles, our hope is that these new data will begin a conversation and spark more concentrated research.
Academics and think tanks in the US have examined the correlations between marriage, the parenting gap, and economic well-being. Sadly, the Canadian dialogue on marriage and economic prosperity is many miles (and many more kilometers) behind the American conversation. We hope that this research will begin to change that.