Public Policy Issues

Income Support Policies and the Support of Low-income Fathers

This article, which examines income support policies and the support of low-income fathers, is a chapter in FIRA's Inventory of Policies and Policy Areas Influencing Father Involvement.


An area of increasing interest among researchers and policy makers in recent years is the changing role of fathers and the explicit desire to support father involvement as a way to enhance children's health and well-being. Although scholarly interest in fatherhood emerged in the early 1970s and 80s, the bulk of studies and policy work on fatherhood is very recent - much of it dating from the mid-1990s onwards.

This article is a chapter in the recently released Inventory of Policies and Policy Areas Influencing Father Involvement which is a collaborative document which has benefited from the ideas and suggestions of others. It is supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC - CURA). For a full copy of this document see our home page.


Income Support Policies and the Support of Low-income Fathers

by Lynda M. Ashbourne and Donna S. Lero

Specific Issues and Policies

Many children in Canada live in poverty. The 2005 Innocenti report “Child Poverty in Rich Countries” indicates that almost 15% of children in Canada live below 50% of the median national income . Raising children in poverty can take a toll on both fathers and mothers, and has long term implications for children’s health, educational attainment, social-emotional well being and future earning capacity.

An analysis of low income and its impacts requires considering difficulties fathers may experience in securing adequate, stable income from market sources (employment or self employment), as well as their eligibility for and the adequacy of payments or benefits from government transfer sources including social assistance, disability benefits, and Employment Insurance. Many fathers, both those who reside with their children and those who live apart from their children, are either unemployed or low-income wage earners. Recent statistics, based on 2001 Canadian census data, indicate that 20% of lone fathers and 8% of fathers in a marriage or common-law relationship are designated as having a low income (Galarneau, 2005). Unfortunately, in the case of fathers who are not living with their children (due to separation or divorce, no longer living with, or never co-resident with the mother – see Section J: Non-resident Fathers), statistics recording their income are subsumed under the categories of ‘other economic families’ (i.e. men living with relatives such as parents or siblings) or ‘unattached males’. The omission of their designation as fathers may be made even in circumstances of shared custody and instances where children are spending part of their time living with their fathers, since children are designated to one primary residence only for the purposes of the census data. Paying child support payments does not designate you as a father for the purposes of Statistics Canada. Thus, the “invisibility” of these fathers in wage-earning and family income statistics contributes to our lack of knowledge and understanding of their experience and the impact of particular social policies that may affect their lives.

Low income fathers may include those who work for minimum wage, are working in part-time or seasonal jobs, and some who are working more than one job in order to provide adequate economic support for their families. Young fathers, those with the least education, and recent immigrants are most likely to have lower levels of income. Regardless of age, fathers with a high school diploma or less are more likely to be at a low income level, with rates of almost 50% for lone fathers and 25% for fathers in couple relationships (Galarneau, 2005). Immigrant fathers may face difficulties in obtaining and sustaining employment, and may be underemployed relative to their previous work or level of training in their country of origin (see Section K for a more thorough analysis of the experience of immigrant fathers). Members of particular groups, for example Aboriginal fathers and adolescent fathers, those with a high school education or less, or those who live in geographically remote regions, may be particularly disadvantaged with respect to access to employment (see Sections H: Young Fathers and O: Aboriginal Fathers). In addition to employment or market sources of income, some fathers, such as those who are disabled or who work seasonally, will rely on government transfer sources of income including disability support programs, CPP or social assistance, and Employment Insurance.

Some types of work, such as farming or fishing, are seasonal and provide unpredictable income over the course of a year or several years. In these cases both fathers and mothers often have to obtain second jobs in order to supplement their income and families are dependent on such external factors as weather, commodity prices and bank loans to maintain a stable family income. In fact, fathers and mothers who earn a low income may be working longer hours for fewer dollars, relative to their middle- and upper-income counterparts, due to the nature of seasonal, contract and part-time work. This also means that there may be fewer hours available to poor parents for spending time with their families.

Fathers are more likely than mothers to be in a situation of travelling to other parts of the country for work, with corresponding decreased opportunities to spend time with their children. Low income fathers who do not live with their children are often unable to afford to travel to see their children if mother and children live far away.

Recent shifts in employment patterns have led to an increased interest in vulnerable workers, including those engaged in non-standard or precarious work (Vosko, Zukewich & Cranford, 2003). These terms refer to work that is part-time or temporary, in contrast with full time permanent employment, and also include individuals who are self employed and working on their own. Those engaged in precarious work often lack certainty with respect to continuing income, and typically do not receive non-wage employment benefits such as supplemental health insurance or dental plans. Moreover, many precarious workers, including self-employed owners of small businesses and the solo self-employed (two thirds of whom are men) are not covered under public protection mechanisms such as workers’ compensation and do not qualify for income replacement in the event of illness or leave from work for parental or compassionate care leave (Chung, 2004; Vosko et al., 2003) .

Significance and Potential Influence on Fathers

Of particular importance is the relative invisibility, to policy makers and service providers, of men’s roles as fathers when they are not living with their children, or not living with them all of the time, whether or not they are providing materially for them. In overlooking this aspect of “single” men’s roles, the provision of housing and food allowances that would provide adequate space and resources for children to visit and/or stay is not included as a component of provincial social assistance programs.

Related to the invisibility of the father role for men who are not living with their children is the construction of the “provider” role for fathers. This defined role of provider can have an impact on father involvement, particularly for low-income fathers. It has been demonstrated that employment is positively related to father involvement (Christiansen & Palkovitz, 2001, Danzinger & Radin; 1990), suggesting that fathers who see that they can play a provider role through their employment also see more opportunities to be involved with their children. In fact, fathers who are not in a position to play this economic provider role may withdraw from family involvement (Christiansen & Palkovitz, 2001).

Economic hardship can lead to fathers becoming more negative and hostile toward their partners and their children (Elder, Conger, Foster & Ardelt, 1992). The unemployment of fathers can have negative effects on the family and on child development, generally as a result of negative changes in paternal behaviour and mood (McLoyd, 1989). Similarly, fathers who work long hours, hold multiple jobs, and who travel for work or work in seasonal industries for limited income, are likely negatively influenced along with their families. The economic provider role may have particular salience for low-income fathers since they may have to work longer hours or hold more jobs than better paid fathers, and they may have to make personal sacrifices in order to provide for the economic necessities of their family (Christiansen & Palkovitz, 2001). Christiansen and Palkovitz (2001) characterize the provider role as a long-term economic responsibility that enhances father-child relationships by placing them within a context of ongoing involvement and connection, and suggest the value of supporting and enhancing this involvement through social policy.

Low income fathers may be at some disadvantage when pursuing custody and making arrangements for time with their children (access or parenting time) following separation or divorce. Legal costs can be prohibitive for low-income individuals and, although legal aid may be available, it is often time-limited. In addition, less flexible work schedules may make it quite difficult for fathers to arrange times to be with their children or to have their children stay with them.

Low income fathers, particularly those with unstable or seasonal employment, may have difficulty maintaining child support payments and/or regular contact with their children. Support enforcement policies and procedures are reactive and potentially punitive for low income and precariously employed fathers. These policies are triggered by arrears which may be a result of seasonal work stoppage, the termination of temporary employment, or the inadequacy of low wages to cover household costs as well as custody in the event of higher than usual expenses, such as increased heating costs in winter or car repairs necessary in order to maintain employment. Child support enforcement on its own (especially when pursued punitively) can result in unintended negative consequences for fathers, mothers and children, including decreased paternal involvement in the long run. A policy alternative evident in a number of European countries provides child support maintenance payments when parents are unable to pay court-ordered support on a continuing basis -- an approach that protects income, as well as smoothing out the instability in earnings to which low income fathers are particularly vulnerable.

Minimum wages in Canada are set by individual provinces and currently range from a low of $5.90 in Alberta to a high of $8.00 in British Columbia (Statistics Canada, 2005). In 2004, 4.6% of all employees in Canada worked at or below the minimum wage (Statistics Canada, 2005). Depending on the number of persons in a household, it can become increasingly difficult to support a family based on a minimum wage income. Interestingly, although women continue to be at higher risk than men of being in low-paying jobs, men who earn a low wage are at greater risk of residing in a low-income family (Chung, 2004).

Social assistance benefit programs often determine needs based on the presence of children in the house. Benefits are determined based on the number of members in the family unit, and the ages of the children, with benefit rates varying widely across the country. For example, the 2004 estimated annual income from provincial welfare and federal and provincial tax benefits for a single employable person was $3,388 in New Brunswick and $6,973in Ontario, while the income for a single parent with one child was $13,389 in New Brunswick and $14,251 in Ontario (National Council of Welfare, 2005). What this means then, is that fathers who do not reside with their children all or most of the time are viewed as having the same needs as unattached men. In terms of benefits, housing and food provisions, it may be that such fathers are unable to have their children stay with them for limited periods of time or for regular time together, and may have difficulty making child support payments while on social assistance. In addition, the costs of travel in order to see children who are geographically distant from their fathers may be prohibitive on a limited social assistance income.

The National Child Benefit (NCB) is a joint project of the federal, provincial and territorial governments. This Canada Child Tax Benefit (CCTB) is paid on a sliding scale to approximately 80% of families with children, while the National Child Benefit Supplement and the Child Disability Benefit (see Section P: Fathers of Children with Special Needs) is paid exclusively to low-income families with children. The benefits are paid to the parent with whom the children normally reside. Where custody and living arrangements are shared, parents can arrange to have this benefit paid in alternate periods to each parent (Canada Revenue Agency, 2005). Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Québec, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and the three territories also pay benefits for children in low income families, in addition to the NCB. Low-income families who are not supported by provincial social assistance get to keep all of the NCBS. Varying clawback mechanisms exist across the provinces in order to return to the provincial government some or all of the NCBS that is paid to families who are on provincial social assistance. The stated intent of this clawback is to have the money reinvested in programs for low income families with children (National Council of Welfare Reports, 2004).

Gaps, Critical Questions and Concerns

In a series of reports on vulnerable workers, Saunders (2005) has identified a variety of policy instruments that could be undertaken to improve incomes of the working poor, provide access to benefits and supports to meet special needs, and enhance education, skills and assets among low income workers. These recommendations (which are suggested as maximally effective as a package of complementary measures) include the following: increase minimum wages over time and provide targeted income supplements, such as the Earned Income Credit in the U.S., as well as increasing the amount of the National Child Benefit; develop mechanisms to enable universal access to such benefits and supports as coverage for drug and dental costs, affordable child care services, affordable housing and Employment Insurance for low income workers and their families; and enable low-paid workers opportunities to improve their prospects in the labour market by providing opportunities for them to improve their skills (literacy, job skills, upgraded education and training) and to save for the future by reducing or removing means tests that strip workers of their savings in order to access other important supports.

Minimum wage levels do not discriminate between parents and non-parents. Noncustodial and non-residential parents (often fathers) are not eligible for increased levels of government transfer sources of income such as welfare and disability support that take into account their parental status. In fact, census statistics do not incorporate parental status for fathers, other than for those who are married and reside with their children, and those who have sole custody of their children. When parental status is overlooked, income support programs and family support services cannot be directed at facilitating or enhancing father involvement in families.

Income sources such as employment and self-employment may be quite precarious for low-income fathers. Social assistance programs that advocate “welfare to work” strategies are not always training for, or directing participants to, work that is stable and provides an adequate wage for supporting a family. More stringent requirements affecting coverage and eligibility for Employment Insurance benefits that were introduced in the 1990s have had a particular impact on temporary and seasonal employees and those who are repeat users. Workers in low paid jobs are more likely to be working without additional non-wage benefits such as supplemental health care and dental/drug plans that can be important as family supports, and to be working without flexibility or income protection if leave is required for illness or caregiving.

Poverty can be seen “not simply as a lack of financial resources, but as the cause and consequence of social exclusion. That is, a lack of money prevents individuals from fully participating in the social and economic activities of the society in which they live. Broader interpretations of poverty incorporate notions of dignity and capabilities to achieve potential” (Kunz & Frank, 2004). Several initiatives in the United States have been introduced in recent years that are targeted specifically to low income (often young) fathers to enhance their earning capacities, help develop parenting skills, and support their involvement in their children’s lives (Tamis-LeMonda & Cabrera, 1999). Early reports are providing mixed, but promising results, depending on the program and fathers’ characteristics; however they also suggest that a combination of targeted and more universal or systemic approaches to support fathers may be more beneficial (Raikes, Summers & Rogman, 2005). Additional research on the effects of policies and programs on low-income fathers in the Canadian context would be valuable.

Key References

Canada Revenue Agency. (2005). Your Canada Child Tax Benefit (including related provincial and territorial child benefits and credits) for the period from July 2005 to June 2006. Retrieved October 2005, from
Christiansen, S.L. & Palkovitz, R. (2001). Why the “good provider” role still matters: Providing as a form of paternal involvement. Journal of Family Issues, 22, 84-106.
Chung, L. (2004). Low-paid workers: How many live in low-income families? Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada catalogue number 75-001-XIE). October 2004 online edition.
Danzinger, S.K. & Radin, N. (1990). Absent does not equal uninvolved: Predictors of fathering in teen mother families. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52, 636-642.
Elder, G.H., Conger, R.D., Foster, E.M., & Ardelt, M. (1992). Families under economic pressure. Journal of Family Issues, 13, 5-37.
Galarneau, D. (2005). Education and income of lone parents. Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada catalogue number 75-001-XIE). December 2005 online edition.
Kunz, J.L. & Frank, J. (2004). Poverty, thy name is Hydra. Horizons: Policy Research Initiative, 7, 4-8.
McLoyd, V. (1989). Socialization and development in a changing economy: The effects of paternal job and income loss on children. American Psychologist, 44, 293-302.
National Council of Welfare. (2005). Welfare Incomes 2004. Vol.123. Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada. Retrieved November 2005, from
Raikes, H.H., Summers, J.A. & Rogman, L.A. (2005). Father involvement in Early Head Start programs. Fathering: A Journal of Theory, Research and Practice about Men as Fathers. 3: 29-58.
Saunders, R. (2005). Lifting the boats: Policies to make work pay. Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks. Available at
Statistics Canada. (2006). Income in Canada, 2004. Catalogue no. 75-202-XIE. Minister of Industry. Available from
Statistics Canada. (2005). Fact sheet on minimum wage. Perspectives on Labour and Income 6(9), 18-23.
Tamis-LeMonda, C.S. & Cabrera, N. (1999). Perspectives on father involvement: Research and policy. Social Policy Report. Vol XIII, No. 2. Society for Research in Child Development.
UNICEF. (2005). Child poverty in rich countries 2005: Innocenti report card no. 6. Florence: United Nations Children’s Fund.
Vosko, L.F., Zukewich, N., Cranford, C. (2003). Precarious jobs: A new typology of employment.
Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada catalogue number 75-001-XIE). October 2003 online edition. Available from