OTTAWA (CP) - Lone-parent families, the majority of which teeter on the edge of financial dire straits, make up a record one in four Canadian families with children according to census information released Wednesday that shows the so-called nuclear family in dramatic decline.
While common-law marriages and same-sex unions also reached record numbers in 2006, married couples with children were the only group to experience a drop in the five years since the last census.
Evidence of the lone-parent phenomenon reaches back to the early 20th century, but the reasons more and more Canadian children are being raised by only one parent are drastically different than they were 75 years ago.
Regardless of the cause, poverty is a common thread.
"The problem is that you have only one breadwinner, when that breadwinner is employed at all," said Anne-Marie Ambert, professor emeritus of sociology at York University in Toronto.
In 2005, the median household income for two-parent families in Canada was $67,600. For lone-parent families it was $30,000 - meaning half of all single-parent families were bringing in less that amount annually.
There were 1.4 million lone-parent families - 26 per cent of all families with children - last year. That's up some eight per cent from five years earlier. While the vast majority of such households (80 per cent) were headed by women, the number of lone-parent families headed by men was up 15 per cent.
More than 2.1 million children are now living in a lone-parent family.
"The first consequence is definitely much higher poverty rates among them, especially for women who have had children by themselves and were young," said Ambert, who wrote a paper on the subject last year for The Vanier Institute of the Family.
"It definitely has increased the poverty rates, there's no question about that."
Ambert's study suggests that between 35 and 80 per cent of one-parent families are poor at some point in their life while others "hover precariously above the poverty level."
For lone-parent and activist Beverley Halls, poverty meant never being able to afford schools trips for her eldest daughter - who wasn't shy about telling other students she was left behind because "mom didn't have the money again."
"One day it hit me, 'Oh my God she's really telling people I didn't have the money,"' said Halls. "I bawled my head off. To me this meant my daughter was broadcasting that I was a failure."
That daughter, now in her 20s and married, once attempted suicide in despair over the family's poverty, said Halls, who came to Canada from Trinidad in the'70s. The girl's father left before she was born.
The 46-year old, after years of relocating throughout Toronto in an attempt to find housing she could afford, recently moved into her parents' Mississauga home, just west of the city, with her two younger daughters, aged' and five.
"I have dreams for my daughters. That means money," said Halls, who is deaf and said that's made finding lasting work difficult. "Poverty has killed a lot of my dreams."
According to Statistics Canada, almost half of all black children aged-- and under live with only one parent - compared to' per cent of other children.
American research, cited in Ambert's study, has found boys raised without a father were twice as likely to be jailed - although children raised in step-parent families were at an even greater risk of running afoul of the law.
While Ambert says the majority of children raised by a single mother don't turn to crime, "it's a very, very big risk, combining father absence and poverty."
"There is a relationship between poverty and crime but there is also an even bigger relationship when you accumulate poverty, father absence and crime," she said.
While the proportion of lone-parent families has never been larger, statistics show it isn't only a modern phenomenon. In'31,-.6 per cent of families were single-parent ones - a level not surpassed until'96.
"It was very high early in the century (but) the causes have certainly changed," said Anne Milan, senior analyst at Statistics Canada.
"Life expectancy was lower, you had the wars. . . It was much more likely to be widowed earlier in the 20th century. With the introduction of the Divorce Act in'68, and its amendment in'85 (allowing no-fault divorce), we've seen increases."
Michelle Nelson was enjoying a comfortable lifestyle in'97 when her marriage fell apart. Nelson left her Toronto home with her two sons, then nine months and' months, and headed to the suburbs but soon found her bank account drained.
"You have to swallow your pride," said Nelson, who turned to a food bank to get through the tough times. "When you're a parent you tend to have a real survival kind of an instinct, to protect your children from seeing a difference in the quality of lifestyle."
A decade later, Nelson is still a lone-parent but one with a solid job - she has worked in administration at a Toronto-area food bank since 2005. Still, having only one income means nothing is wasted and she never forgets how easy it would be to slip back into financial trouble.
"It's just that simple. If you get laid off and you're waiting for employment insurance. . .savings are depleted - and it goes fast."
Society's shift away from the strict adherence to social and religious taboos about raising children out of wedlock has also contributed to the rising number of lone-parent families.
Only 0.5 per cent of lone-parent families in'31 were the result of children born outside of marriage. By 2006, never-married lone parents accounted for 30 per cent of all such families, according to Statistics Canada.
Educated women with stable incomes who choose to have children on their own, and later in life, find themselves on par, economically, with married couples, Ambert noted.
"There's no negative consequence to that in terms of poverty," said Ambert.
However, those women are the exception.
"As soon as you cross the education level you have far fewer young girls with college and university education who have children and are single mothers, so it's definitely social class related," said Ambert.
"Poverty, and the family of origin, creates more poverty through single parenthood."
The answer, for Ambert, is not a return to the days when unwed pregnant women were shunned and forced into creative solutions that included banishment until the baby was born, so that it could then be raised by its grandmother or another family member.
"On the one hand, we shouldn't discriminate against them," said Ambert, who added more government support, including financial, is needed to lift young single mothers and their children out of poverty.
"On the other hand, it's such a very heavy load on a woman and later on, sometimes, on their children when they fall into poverty. That's definitely something we should not encourage among young people."
Almost 800,000 children, or one in 10, grow up poor, Campaign 2000, a non-partisan network devoted to ending child poverty, said Wednesday. The group called on Ottawa and the provinces to spend roughly $10 billion over the next five years, as a starting point.