Families are groups of people who consider themselves a unit based on ties of birth, adoption, or mutual consent. Commonly, when people speak of a family unit they are referring to one or more adults who are raising children; but the definition could also include vulnerable adults residing with parents, children living with a custodial adult in another home, and children living with extended family.

According to Statistics Canada, there were 265,620 families (defined as one or more adults and at least one child aged 0 to 19) in Saskatchewan in 2001. While the “traditional” family constellation of mother, father, and several children is still the most common family form, over 42,000 families (roughly 16% of the total) are headed by a single parent. About 38,000 families involve a grandparent raising the children. In 2001, same-sex partners were raising 95 children in Saskatchewan.

When Saskatchewan became a province, most families lived in rural areas and families were larger than they are today. In those days, when families faced economic hardship or other problems, they generally relied upon other family members, neighbours, charitable organizations, and churches for support. Communities focused on providing the most basic support to families, such as an elementary-level education for the children. Gradually, however, as social and economic relations became more complex, the public came to accept a partial role in the well-being of families because of their value to a healthy society. Over time, a larger role in family matters evolved for governments at all levels.

One way that governments help families is through direct or indirect financial benefits to help with the costs of raising children. The first significant government recognition of children’s needs was a tax deduction for children introduced along with Canada’s first income tax system in 1918. Since 1945, when the Family Allowance was established, the federal government has provided a monthly benefit for children. Federal child benefits are now provided through the Canada Child Tax Benefit in a system that has replaced basic social assistance for children in Saskatchewan, and which provides income for children’s needs to both low and moderate-income families. The Canada Child Tax Benefit acts as an anti-poverty measure for families and children, and by offsetting some child-related costs helps families get by on employment earnings and avoid dependency on social assistance.

Saskatchewan also provides a number of family benefits, most targeted to lower-income families. These may be cash benefits, such as the Saskatchewan Employment Supplement, or in-kind programs such as Family Health Benefits, which reduce health costs for children in low-income families. Often a family, particularly with a young child, faces difficult choices with respect to work and parenting: most parents want to care for their own children, but must balance this option with building careers and supporting the family economically through employment. Every family situation is unique, and families have different resources to support parenting choices—including a choice by either or both spouses to care for children themselves and not take part in employment outside the home. Personal resources, government children’s benefits, the earnings of one spouse, or Employment Insurance parental benefits may help a family finance a period of stay-at-home care.

For most parents, at-home care of children is a temporary phase in family life. Nearly as many women as men are engaged in the labour market, and the majority of women with children, including those with preschool children, are in paid employment. Parents who work or go to school must often rely on others to care for their children at least part of the time. Research shows that most parents in Saskatchewan prefer care by family members, neighbours, or other private arrangements, but will consider more structured child care services if necessary. School-based and private early learning programs have also become extremely popular with parents of children in the 3- to 5-year-old age group. Balancing work and family can be more than just an income issue. Family-friendly employment policies are becoming more widespread, as many employers provide options for flexible hours and family leave to enable staff to balance work with the responsibilities of raising children or caring for aging relatives. The trend towards family-friendly workplaces is expected to grow over time.

Very few families can function well in isolation: most parents rely, to some degree, on support from friends, relatives, and community social services. Families meet their needs through a mix of their own resources, community resources, and investment by governments in families’ purchasing power and in services such as family service bureau and community recreation programs. The school system in Saskatchewan is also playing an increasing role in supporting families. While all families need some outside help, most get by without specific government intervention beyond mainstream benefits and services such as the Canada Child Tax Credit or school systems. A certain proportion of families, especially low-income families, may need more public support, particularly to afford child care or early learning services, so that parents can work and children will be well cared for. Some families may also require modest parenting supports as well to ensure good life outcomes for children.

Very small proportions of families have high levels of need for family supports. For teenage mothers in particular, it is important to encourage participation in school or work, as well as effective parenting. Research evidence suggests that living in a family with at least one parent attached to the labour market results in better outcomes for children, and employment usually means the difference between poverty and self-sufficiency for the parent and the children. Some families also face more serious parenting or child development issues. In Saskatchewan, governments support services like the Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program, KidsFirst, or Aboriginal Head Start provide help to families and children with significant needs.

This targeted approach to family support has been successful to a point, but targeted programs are inherently limited in the scope of their impact. Experts with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and others suggest that more broadly based social investments in families, enhanced by targeted programs for those in vulnerable situations, are more likely to achieve the best overall outcomes for children and families. Although governments are increasingly involved in family matters, parents have first responsibility for their own children. Effective parenting is critical to healthy child development: supportive, responsive, and consistent parents cause children to have better learning and behavioural outcomes. However, the pressures of balancing responsibilities at home, at work, and in the larger community can be difficult, and good parenting is often a challenge. Evidence of good parenting is not typically reported publicly, and governments tend to measure poor parenting only by the number of families involved with child welfare programs. Most families involved with child welfare are low-income, but evidence from Canadian research suggests that family challenges cut across income groups. In fact, because of the size of the middle class, most children suffering inadequate parenting come from middle-class families—not poor families, as is commonly believed.

Supportive communities are an important aspect of successful parenting and healthy families. The degree to which communities take care of their own members is important to creating safe and inclusive communities that help parents provide the healthy family environments allowing children to develop into responsible adult citizens.

Janet Mitchell