MASTHEAD-2The 2016 Census provides a good starting point for understanding the state of civil society in Canada, writes Sean Speer. But more comprehensive analysis is needed before considering public policy options.

By Sean Speer, Aug. 4, 2017

Statistics Canada’s new 2016 Census data present an interesting socio-cultural picture of Canada. It gives us a new sense of the state of the country’s key civil society institutions, including marriage, family, and community. The trends set out in the data could have significant economic and social implications. Policymakers should review them closely.

We rarely talk about notion of “civil society” in public policy circles. The focus tends to be a false dichotomy between the individual and the state. It’s a funny omission. Most of everyday life occurs in the space between the two, as Yuval Levin has written. Most of us see ourselves as parents, spouses, siblings, neighbours, parishioners, or volunteers rather than abstractions about individualism. These civil society roles are ultimately what matters.

The state of civil society has nonetheless received limited attention in Canada. But it’s much more rigorously studied in the United States. Scholars from across the intellectual and political spectrum – including Robert Putnam from the Left and Charles Murray from the Right – have empirically documented the decline in civic engagement and social connectivity.

This loss of social capital has significant socio-economic implications. Recent work by Raj Chetty and J.D. Vance, for instance, has documented its importance in enabling social mobility and economic opportunity. Increasingly the major determinant of economic outcomes is one’s connection to key civil society institutions such as marriage and family. Understanding the role of civil society in general and family structure in particular is therefore key to understanding the big economic challenges of our time.

Understanding the role of civil society in general and family structure in particular is therefore key to understanding the big economic challenges of our time.

The most recent inquiry into these questions in the US is a bi-partisan study being led in the Senate by Utah Senator Mike Lee. He has assembled a top-notch team – including former Brookings Institution economist Scott Winship, Mercatus Center fellow Justus Myers, and senate adviser Daniel Bunn – to help him carry it out. The Social Capital Project involves a deep analytical dive into key civil society institutions, how they interact with one another and broader society, and how they can be strengthened.

These are important questions that strike at the heart of the kind of society we are and will be in the future. They require greater attention in Canada. This is what makes the recent 2016 Census release so interesting. It starts to provide a basis to answer similar questions for Canada. How are we faring?

The data show similar trends of social disengagement and family breakdown as witnessed in the US. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Canada experienced its largest increase in the share of seniors since the first census following Confederation. The proportion of those aged 65 and older climbed to 16.9 percent of Canada’s population and exceeded the share of those under 15 years old at 16.6 percent.
  • The number of Canadians living alone is now the most common type of household representing 28.2 percent. This is not merely an aging phenomenon. The data also show higher rates of living alone for those between 30-34 and 35-39 relative to the 2011 Census.
  • Number of couples without children are growing faster than those with children and now represents 48.9 percent – the highest level on record. Couples without children are in fact the larger share in eight provinces. Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are major outliers.
  • The share of common-law couples has increased dramatically since 1981 to 21.3 percent from 6.3 percent. Single-parent families are also becoming more common. More than a million Canadian children – about two in every 10 – lived in a single-parent family in 2016.
  • Nearly 35 percent of Canadians between the ages of 20 and 34 still live with their parents. That is up from 30.6 percent in the 2001 Census. Toronto has the highest share of young adults still in the nest with just under half, or 47.4 percent, remaining at the parental home.

More research inquiry is needed to understand these trends, including how they affect different population groups, how they interact with one another, and their socio-economic implications. A number of Canadian scholars are carrying out work in related areas but few are pulling them together comprehensively to assess the state and vitality of Canada’s civil society institutions. The Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Culture and Opportunity may be a useful model for a cross-cutting synthesis.

The data show similar trends of social disengagement and family breakdown as witnessed in the US.

Such an effort could then enable more detailed analysis of the relationship between these civil society trends and broader socio-economic questions and the role for public policy. The relationship between family structure and economic outcomes is a good example – especially given the heightened political attention paid to intergenerational mobility and income inequality.

We know, for instance, that there is a clear association between marriage and poverty. Women and children in single-parent households are at particular risk for living in poverty. There may therefore be a greater role for public policy to support marriage and family. Shifting the tax base from the individual to the family unit as the 1966 Carter Commission recommended is one option. Modernizing parental leave and enriching child benefits is another. Reforming current disability and social assistance benefits so as to not discourage marriage should also be examined.

But before considering policy options, we need to better understand where Canada’s civil society institutions stand. The 2016 Census starts to paint this picture. It is up to us to more fully see it.

Sean Speer is a Munk senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.