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Peter Jon MitchellDoes government have a role in raising families and, if so, how large is that role?

These questions are being asked on both sides of the border.

In the U.S. election campaign’s death-spiral race to the bottom, policy issues have gathered little attention.

But both candidates have put forward packages of family policies that include parental leave and various mechanisms to supplement the cost of daycare.

The challenge is that many of these policies assume families make decisions about work and raising kids in much the same manner. In reality, families are finding diverse and creative ways to gain income and care for children.

Recently updated Statistics Canada data on stay-at-home parents demonstrates that.

The agency says the number of stay-at-home parents with at least one child under age 16 has declined from about 1.5 million in 1976 to about a half a million by 2015.

The change over almost 40 years is significant. But the most dramatic decline occurred before 1991, with a slower decline since then. In fact, the number of stay-at-home parents has been comparatively stable over the last five years.

Statistics Canada’s definition of a stay-at-home parent excludes job seekers, those unable to work or those pursuing education. While the definition provides a consistent measure for nearly 40 years of data, it excludes some people who function as stay-at-home parents but don’t meet the definition.

Single-earning couple families, whether they meet the definition of stay-at-home or not, account for about 22 percent of all families with at least one child under 16 years old.

Dual-earner couple families with at least one child under 16 make up about 55 percent of all families.

While we might assume that dual-earning couples are the norm, there is diversity within that group when it comes to hours worked. A significant portion of parents (25 percent) are employed part-time, providing more flexibility in managing unpaid labour at home.

In fact, a 2013 Pew Research study found that 47 percent of American mothers said working part-time would be their ideal situation.

Another aspect to consider is that work patterns within families often change as children grow.

Those work patterns also change in response to the labour market.

For example, the portion of stay-at-home fathers has risen over the last 40 years, yet these gains reversed during times of economic growth. Some out-of-work fathers may choose to suspend their job search, meeting the definition of a stay-at-home parent, and then return to work when the economy picks up and more job opportunities are available.

As in the past, moms remain more likely to be the stay-at-home parent. When compared to moms in dual-earning families and single-earner couple families where mom works, stay-at-home moms in Canada are more likely to be younger, have younger children, and are twice as likely to have more than two children.

As children grow older, at least a portion of some stay-at-home parents will re-enter the labour force, part time or full time.

Then there are single parents to consider. They make up about 20 percent of families with children under 16. They face unique challenges in managing paid employment and unpaid labour at home.

What this all means is that families employ various strategies to organize their work and family. Employers and employees both benefit when flex and compressed work schedules are available, providing more options for working parents.

The U.S. election campaign suggests that many voters expect the state to subsidize raising children. This was certainly an issue in last fall’s Canadian federal election.

If the state is to be involved, policy packages should be designed with the flexibility to accommodate the various ways families organize their lives. Tax refunds and cash payments to parents are preferable tools that provide parents with the flexibility to navigate their own preferences for paid work and the care of children.

That way, government’s role in raising families is controlled by families.

Peter Jon Mitchell is senior researcher at Cardus.

Peter is a Troy Media contributor. Why aren’t you?

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