Looking at lone parent families is like looking at a hologram picture: holding it

one way you see one thing, holding it a other way, you see another thing. This can be

profoundly disorienting. In order to avoid vertigo, I shall start by looking at the picture

from different angles, turning it slowly, noting the shifting patterns. All of these angles

are informed by the basic lens used here: what are meaningful concepts for social policy


It is dangerous to identify problems – and thereby their solutions – on the basis of

a structural factor (the presence of one rather that the two parents) when upon

examination this factor does not turn out to be the crucial variable. Consequently the first

question is, in what way are lone parent families the same or different from two-parent

families and from each other? What is the connection between poverty and lone parent

families? What is the connection between household membership and family

membership in lone parent and two-parent families? Underlying these questions will be

another question: What are the appropriate terms with which to label the various types of


I shall proceed from there to explore models of the family underlying various

types of policies and their implications for lone parent families, and identify problems in

the currently prevailing model as well as suggest a possible alternative model. I shall be

using the term lone parent rather than one-parent or single parent family, since the latter

terms provide an inaccurate description of most of the families under consideration.

First of all, there are five pathways by which lone parent families may come into

existence. Three of them are subsequent to union dissolution, and two are through

acquisition of a child by an unmarried parent. A lone parent family may come into

existence through the death of a married parent, through the separation or divorce of a

married parent, through union dissolution of a parent living common-law, through birth

to an unmarried woman or through adoption of a child by a single adult. These different

pathways have different consequences for social policy.

By contrast, two-parent families come into existence in only two ways. A couple

marries and subsequently have children through birth or adoption or a person (with or

without children) marries a parent. This couple may have joint subsequent children as


Lone parents may be either male or female. The vast majority are female, but a

small minority of them are male. The economic and social situation s of male and female

lone parents tend to be quite different, reflecting the differential economic and social

positions of men and women in general (McKie, 1993).

Lone parenthood is quite often identified with poverty. There is a strong

likelihood that lone parent families will be poor, especially if that lone parent is female

(Dooley, 1993), but in absolute terms, there are more husband-wife families in Canada

who are poor than there are poor lone parent families. Poverty is unfortunately a

characteristic that is typical of both husband-wife as well as lone parent families (as well

as unattached individuals).

Adopting the angle of the child – the participant that makes the lone parent family

a family – we can see major differences in the existence of this family form. A child may

live in a lone parent family during his/her entire childhood. Alternatively, living in a lone

parent family may be preceded by living in a two-parent family, and/or this may be

succeeded by living in a two-parent family, or there may be a repeated pattern of living in

a lone parent/two-parent situation.

Looking again at the holographic picture of the lone parent families as

well as two-parent families (biological as well as social), the differences within the

category of lone parent families and between the categories of lone parent and two-parent

families are as large as the similarities. Both types of families may involve a parent who

is not living with his (occasionally her) children. Household membership for children in

lone parent, as well as two-parent, families may or not be congruous with family

membership. Both types of families may be above or below the poverty threshold. Lone

parenthood may be a permanent or impermanent state, which is also