Youth violence and family breakdown



December 15, 2008

familyBy Peter Jon Mitchell, Research Analyst, Institute of Marriage and Family Canada [IMFC eReview, Dec 4 2008]

Youth violence is on the rise in Canada, and the Ontario provincial government released a two million dollar report on November 14, 2008 identifying the root causes and how to address the problem. It identifies ten root causes including racism, poverty and family issues, and proposes thirty major recommendations for the province to consider.  On family, however, The Roots of Youth Violence avoids even grappling with the research consensus that shows family structure matters for child development. [1]

They downplay discussion on the role of fatherlessness in violent crime in urban neighbourhoods saying the research correlating the two is “equivocal.” [2] The authors add, “it is not the structure of the family but rather the stresses bearing on the family relationships that can create immediate risk factors for violence involving youth.” [3]

The authors accept changing family structure as the normal societal course, and attempt to minimize external issues like poverty. [4]

There is in fact a wealth of evidence linking healthy child development with the presence of a mom and dad in the home. As a result, any serious attempt to reduce violence must address family breakdown and disincentives preventing single parents from marrying.

To touch on but a small portion of the literature: A study published in 2007 found unwed parents experience significantly more partner changes. Frequent partner change increases stress on children, leading to modest increases in behavioural problems. [5] American researchers learned that children of cohabitating relationships are five times as likely to experience a parental split. [6] British researchers suggest that nearly half of cohabitating parents in the U.K. split before the child’s fifth birthday. [7]

Second to the emotional and psychological costs of family breakdown are the fiscal implications.  All family groups in Canada are at risk for economic hardship, but lone parents are the demographic group most likely to experience poverty. [8] A report by the Institute for American Values measured the taxpayer cost of divorce and unwed childbearing at a conservative figure of (U.S) $112 billion a year. [9]

Research also shows that kids from married parent homes fair better on a list of outcomes like early sexual initiation or drug use. Numerous studies confirm the importance of both moms and dads. [10] Father involvement promotes healthier behaviour and better school performance. [11] Time with fathers contributes to cognitive development and social competence through physical play. [12]

Furthermore, family breakdown is oftentimes preventable. Rather than accepting family breakdown as a cultural shift, public policy should support existing marriages. Marriage is a poverty fighter—it offers many social benefits to adults and children and assisting the marriages of low-income Canadians is in society’s interest. A 2005 Canadian study found that a low income mother who marries increases her chances of exiting poverty in one year from 29 percent to 84 percent. [13]


Despite the poor assessment of research on family breakdown, there are some positive recommendations in the report. The proposed community service hub model would establish neighbourhood resource centres that address specific needs within the community. The authors support proven programs that assist mothers in prenatal and early infant care. The community hub model could support families further by providing voluntary marriage support programs similar to those already operating in the United States.

The research on the importance of stable, married parent families is compelling. Government could act on this research and support married parents through existing programs. Canada’s Working Income Tax Benefit introduced in the 2007 tax year compensates low income working families. However, unlike the U.S.’s Earned Income Tax Credit, the Canadian program does not account for the expense of an additional adult in the home in two parent families. The Canadian system should recognize this through a marriage bonus. [14] Family taxation models such as income splitting would also reduce the tax burden on low-income working families.

Family structure matters to adults and children—to families, and in turn, communities. A comprehensive approach to poverty and crime must acknowledge the research on family environments and shift towards family-centered policy. Marriage has real benefits for society, and should be promoted and supported and this can be done without stigmatizing or neglecting other family forms.  

The Roots of Violence, in failing to acknowledge the unequivocal body of literature on families is doing no one a favour—least of all those families struggling with breakdown themselves. Public policy must address family breakdown head on to best serve Canadians.


1. McMurtry, R., Curling, A. (2008) The review of the roots of youth violence. Vol. 1. (Toronto: The Queens Printer for Ontario). p.63. Retrieved November 15, 2007 from

2. McMurtry and Curling, p. 63.

3. McMurtry and Curling, p. 63.

4. McMurtry and Curling, p. 62.

5. Osborne, C., McLanahan, S. (2007, November) “Partnership instability and child well-being.” Journal of Marriage and Family vol. 69, no. 4. p. 1065.

6. Osborne, C., Manning, W.D., Smock, P.M. (2007, December) “Married and Cohabiting Parents’ relationship stability: A focus on race and ethnicity.”| Journal of Marriage and Family vol. 69, no 5. p.1345.

7. The State of the Nation Report: Fractured Families. (2006) The Social Policy Justice Group. p.13. Retrieved November 26, 2008 from

8. Taylor, P.S. (2007) Family poverty in Canada: Raising incomes and strengthening families. Canadian Family Views. (Ottawa, Institute of Marriage and Family Canada) p. 9. Available at

9. Scafidi, B. (2008) The taxpayer cost of divorce and unwed child bearing: First-ever estimates for the nation and for all fifty states. (New York: Institute for American Values).

10. Le Menestrel, S. (1999, May 1). “What do fathers contribute to children’s well-being?” Child Trends Research Brief. Retrieved November 26, 2008 from

11. ibid.

12. ibid.

13. Finnie, R. and Sweetmann (2003). “Poverty dynamics: Empirical evidence for Canada.” Canadian Journal of Economics vol.36, no. 4.

14. For an expanded discussion see P.S. Taylor, Family poverty in Canada.

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