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Private Troubles, Private Solutions


Poverty among Divorced Women and the Politics of Support Enforcement and Child Custody Determination.

A summary of an article written by
Jane Pulkingham, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Simon Fraser University
published in The Canadian Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 9, No. 2, Fall 1994, p. 73-97.



Return to Canadian Custody Home Page


Paul Millar.
73 Holland St. NW
Calgary, AB T2K 2E7
(403) 247-0430
pmillar1@telus.net


Private Troubles, Private Solutions

This is a summary of an article written by
Jane Pulkingham, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Simon Fraser University published in The Canadian Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 9, No. 2, Fall 1994, p. 73-97.

Private Troubles, Private Solutions: Poverty among Divorced Women and the Politics of Support Enforcement and Child Custody Determination.

The author divides her attention between two areas: the feminization of poverty and the primary caregiver presumption for children of divorce.

The Feminization of Poverty

The author begins by establishing a definition of the "feminization of poverty". For this, the author turns to C.J. Rogerson:

There is increasing evidence that the rising divorce rate is having dire economic consequences for women and children, leaving them at best, with a substantially lower standard of living than that which they enjoyed during the marriage and at worst, impoverishment. Social commentators have begun to refer to the "feminization of poverty"; to the extent that women remain linked to children after divorce, the phenomenon also involves the impoverishment of children.

In other words, the "feminization of poverty" is an assertion that women are poor as a result of divorce, and that this poverty extends to children. The author establishes that this is a widely held assumption by citing a dozen authoritative sources which assert this position. The increase in divorce is thus seen as a threat to welfare of women and children. Society's response to this perceived social truth is summarized by the author as an equation:

Women and Divorce = Feminization of Poverty = Legal Remedies = Support Enforcement

The author then proceeds to critique the both the assumptions underlying the feminization of poverty and society's response to this apparent problem.

Assumptions in the Feminization of Poverty Theory

The author maintains the assumptions underlying the feminization of poverty theory are not born out by statistical analysis. In other words, poverty among women, even divorced women, does not correlate with rising divorce rates, but is a more general problem. This thesis is illustrated by a wide range of supporting statistical evidence, for example:

...the proportion of women (as a percentage of the total population) who are poor has fallen, reflecting a decrease in the incidence of poverty in the general population.

and

...the incidence of poverty among single mothers has actually declined.

She concludes:

Divorced mothers, then, are not more vulnerable to poverty now than before.

The author is concerned about the underlying assumption of feminine dependence, and the reinforcement of the patriachal, male breadwinner model of the family that the feminization of poverty assumption portrays. She argues that, whatever the ideology,

...family law practice remains firmly grounded upon the assumption that it is the wife who has to be taken care of economically by the husband, not the state.

Government Daycare and Child Support Enforcement

The author makes an economic case that provision of daycare would be more effective and possibly cheaper than the current support enforcement system, while providing more benefits to women. She feels this is a more practical alternative which follows a social responsibility model, rather than reinforcing patriarchal or individual responsibility models.

Primary Caregiver Assumption

The author reviews the history of custody determination, beginning with custody as a paternal right until the mid-19th century, the intervention of the courts and the rise of the "tender years" doctrine and maternal custody in the 20th century, in the context of industrial and social change. She notes that the rise of female custody was driven by judicial preference rather than statute. In 1985, the Divorce Act made "the best interests of the child" the determining factor when awarding custody. She cites modern feminists who support the primary caregiver assumption when awarding custody. The reason presented for this assumption is to formally recognise and reward the disproportionate amount of unpaid childcare performed by women in the home, and to ward off perceived threats such as joint custody.

The author contends that the reality of child custody determination has changed little since 1970 and that mothers overwhelmingly receive custody:

Moreover, of contested custody cases (where there is a counter-petition or trial), 75% result in sole maternal custody and only 8% in sole paternal custody.
Furthermore, sole custody awards to fathers in Canada in this century have always been and remain a relatively unusual phenomenon. According to Central Divorce Registry data, in 1970, 14.6% of fathers were awarded sole custody, compared to 15.3% in 1986. However this slight upward trend appears to have reversed.

and

While there does appear to be a small upward trend in the award of joint legal custody, this increase is at the expense of sole paternal custody, not sole maternal custody.

The author finds little benefit in joint custody because, in practice, it does not translate into shared parenting. According to the author, joint custody does nothing to alleviate the disproportionate amount of unpaid childcare performed by women. She prescribes:

...a reorganization of parenting, one that involves more than the parents themselves. This is no longer a choice, but a necessity.


Commentary

Pulkingham's analysis presents a practical solution to the problem of child support enforcement: government daycare. The economic arguments for this, while plausible, are sketchy. It would make this proposal a lot more compelling if we were given an indication what savings might be achieved. While Pulkingham recommends restructuring parenting, she gives no indication what this might entail. She does not ask an obvious question: What effect would granting men custody of their children have on women? Although she shows that divorce does not impoverish women, perhaps society would change faster if both sexes were raising the children. What better opportunity than granting men custody upon divorce?

Nevertheless, Pulkingham presents compelling arguments for a conceptual framework of social responsibility for, and reorganizing of, the family.

Return to Canadian Custody Home Page


Paul Millar.
73 Holland St. NW
Calgary, AB T2K 2E7
(403) 247-0430
pmillar1@telus.net

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Updates:
2007 12 22 (reformated)