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Health as if everybody counted blog

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Single mothers and income inequality: Demographic reality, an old scary trope revisited, or a little of both?

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 24 July 2012
in CHNET-Works!

single mothers 1Photo by: Clementine Gallot,
reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0 licence
On July 15, the New York Times ran a long story on income inequality and family structure. The story led with a comparison between the lives of two women working in the same child care centre in the US Midwest. One "goes home to a trim subdivision and weekends crowded with children's events"; the other, her subordinate, pays more than half an income in rent and "scrapes by on food stamps," the federal food vouchers on which more than 46 million Americans now rely.

Veteran social policy reporter Jason DeParle's point was, superficially, one of straightforward demographics and arithmetic: the birth of children in unmarried households is becoming the norm. In a world where two paychecks are increasingly essential if a household is to do more than scrape by, especially in the lower reaches of the income distribution, that will have a powerful effect on the overall distribution of income within a society – and by extension, on the life chances of children in different categories of households. Assortative mating – the tendency of people with comparable educations and incomes to marry or at least cohabit – magnifies this demographic effect.

There is nothing new about such observations. In 1998, internationally recognized Canadian urbanist Damaris Rose pointed out that the rapid increase in the number of two-earner households was driving out-migration from the island of Montréal to suburbs where home ownership was more affordable, although her concern was not with income inequality per se but rather with effects on urban form 1.  And the 'single' (presumptively young and feckless, presumptively non-white) mother was a central trope in US welfare 'reform' debates of the 1990s. At the same time, it's hard to disregard the differences that two incomes, especially two secure incomes, make in basic life chances.

single mothers 2Photo from The story of single mothers, part of a campaign by Raise the Rates, a coalition of community groups and organizations concerned with the level of poverty and homelessness in British ColumbiaIn response to the Times article, Shawn Fremstad posted a four-part critique on the web site of the Center for Economic Policy Research, one of the United States' best regarded left-of-centre policy research units. Among the points he made, each documented with links to primary research:

More basic questions would appear to be: why and how do some societies make it so much easier than others to raise children with an adequate material standard of living, and adequate social supports? Detailed, fact-based rather than model-based comparisons of policy regimes are surprisingly hard to find, but it is worth quoting a recent book chapter based on the Luxembourg Income Study's cross-national data sets on social policy impacts: "[A]fter accounting for taxes and transfers, fewer than 5% of children in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden live in poor households," as against 15.6% in Canada and 22.2% in the United States 2. Full stop. Five percent versus 15-22%. A 2009 OECD study pointed out that while 24 percent of children in the United States lived in single parent families in 2005/06, the figure was 19 percent in Denmark and 16 percent in Norway. So something else is at work.

The same study concluded that "the empirical literature on the impact of family structure on child outcomes is at an immature stage." Based on a variety of outcome measures, it also concluded that "at a maximum ... the likely causal effect sizes of being brought up in a sole-parent family are small."

This is a complex policy field, but: a society seriously interested in equalizing opportunities to live a healthy life would start from a firm commitment to something like a 5% (or less) solution, and then work backward from there to see what policies would best achieve that goal in a specified time period, only secondarily asking questions about family structure – not least because of the long time frame needed for interventions that address family structure to have an impact, even when sound research evidence exists to support them.

Some societies are clearly more serious than others on this point. Perhaps that's why a journalist like the Times' DeParle, with a long history of questioning conventional wisdom, took the easy road of looking at family structure rather than the rocky road that runs through the effects of decades of offshoring, union-busting, attacks on social provision and tax breaks for the rich. It's a bit like the easy road taken by health promoters who profess a concern for social determinants of health, but end up talking once again about tobacco control and health literacy. Those are not unimportant, but if serious progress toward health equity is the destination, the easy roads are unlikely to get us there.


1. Rose D, Villeneuve P. Engendering Class in the Metropolitan City: Occupational Pairings and Income Disparities among Two-Earner Couples. Urban Geography, 19: 123-159.

2.  Gornick J, Markus J. Child Poverty in Upper-Income Countries: Lessons from the Luxembourg Income Study. In S Kamerman, S Phipps and A Ben-Arieh, eds., From Child Welfare to Child Well-Being (Springer Netherlands, 2010): 339-368; http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-90-481-3377-2_19.

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Social determinants of health: Glum tidings on the inequality front

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
User is currently offline
on Monday, 11 June 2012
in CHNET-Works!

The Commission on Social Determinants of Health was emphatic about the role of “the inequitable distribution of power, money and resources” in sustaining socioeconomic gradients in health.  Such inequitable distributions do not just happen; they are the result of choices about how societies govern their economies and distribute the rewards they generate.  Globalization has undoubtedly narrowed the range of such choices – think about Eduardo Galeano’s “magic galleon that spirits factories away to poor countries” (1) and the shift of power in Europe from electorates to bond investors and credit rating agencies – but has not eliminated them.  Three recent publications offer important and sobering insights into how those choices have played out in Canada.

The most recent report on child poverty from UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre points out that: “It is now more than 20 years … since the Government of Canada announced that it would ‘seek to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000.’ Yet Canada’s child poverty rate is higher today than when that target was first announced.”  The poverty rate referred to here is not Canada’s Low Income Cut-Off, but rather a standardized relative measure referring to a household disposable income of less than 50 percent of the national median, after adjustments for family size.  Canada, as we can see, does not rank especially well on this measure.   Much of the report is devoted to comparing this measure with an alternative one constructed around 14 specific measures of child well being, for which data are available only for European countries, but among countries for which both measures are available there is a clear correlation between rankings.  

glum tidingsSource: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (2012), Measuring Child Poverty:
New league tables of child poverty in the world’s rich countries.
At the other end of the economic scale, a new paper by five Canadian economists explores some of the driving forces behind Canada’s steadily rising level of inequality –in particular, the growing share of income flowing to the top one percent of the income distribution.  “The top income share almost doubled” from about 8 percent in the late 1970s “to reach 14 percent in recent years.  Such an uneven distribution of income has not been seen since the dark days of the Great Depression.”   In a clearly written review of the issues, the report goes on to make a number of important points:

  • The range of occupations represented in the top one percent is far wider than stereotypes would suggest, with only 10 percent of top earners working in financial services as of 2005 (the date covered in the last compulsory Long Form Census, from which many of the report’s data are drawn)
  • Growing inequality is a function not only of changes in the distribution of market income but also, and crucially, of the retreat from redistribution that began in the 1990s
  • “Younger workers, especially those with limited education, face a world with worse earnings prospects than their fathers’ generation,” suggesting a future of further inequality in market incomes as older cohorts of workers who have maintained their wages retire
  • Revenues from increasing income taxes only on the top once percent would probably be relatively modest, even before considering the impact of strategies for tax avoidance that are available to many of the rich

The report also has, to my way of thinking, at least two shortcomings.  

First, and perhaps unavoidably given data limitations, it deals only with income and not with wealth.  Wealth distributions are often more unequal than incomes, and many forms of intergenerational wealth transfers (e.g. bequests of valuable principal residences) do not show up in income figures.  The report points out the role of assortative mating (of two high earners) in increasing household income inequality; its contribution to inequality in household wealth may be more significant.

Perhaps more seriously, the report takes the concept of ‘skill’ as entirely unproblematic, treating the education level associated with a particular occupation as a rough proxy.  However, there is often no clear connection between the intrinsic complexity of the tasks involved and the credentials of those performing them; in terms of labour market outcomes it makes more sense to ask what kinds of tasks, including some very complex ones, are amenable to ‘offshoring’ in low-wage jurisdictions.

Robert Evans, the iconoclastic health economist whose work was the topic of an earlier posting, likewise organizes a recent article around the one-percenters’ growing share of income and on that fact that “these trends,” both in Canada and the United States, “are to a considerable extent a consequence of conscious, deliberate agency by more or less organized and coherent interest groups.”  His most immediate concern is what the retreat from redistribution means for the future of Canadian public health insurance (“a casualty in the class war,” in Evans’ words) now that federal cash transfers to the provinces for health care no longer come with even minimal conditions.

Evans is, as always, playful with his literary allusions; Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts are directed to his endnote 11 and the accompanying text.

Outside the health care field, he emphasizes the health consequences of the “degrading” of environments where people live and work that is associated with rising inequality – a special concern in view of the prospects of a global economic realignment in which many ‘good jobs’ have simply disappeared from the high income world.  Reducing the effects of that realignment on health disparities will require more, not fewer redistributive economic and social policies – certainly not the austerity measures that are now worsening the current recession.  If one agrees with Evans’ analysis of the sources of successful resistance to such policies, then the precarious state of the social determinants of health agenda in Canada is hardly surprising. 

(1)  Galeano E. (2000).  Upside Down: A primer for the looking glass world.  New York: Picador.

Source: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (2012), Measuring Child Poverty:

New league tables of child poverty in the world’s rich countries.

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