Research Recap: Positive Impacts of Parental Benefits on Couple Relationships

Nathan Battams and Gaby Novoa highlight findings from a study on parental leave and divorce.

April 1, 2021

STUDY: Rachel Margolis, PhD, Youjin Choi, PhD, Anders Holm, PhD, Nirav Mehta, PhD, “The Effect of Expanded Parental Benefits on Union Dissolution,” Journal of Marriage and Family, 83(1) (February 2021). Link: https://bit.ly/306Ino7.


Parental benefits have played an important role in increasing the labour market participation of mothers in Canada over the past 50 years. As part of broader policy focus in recent decades on gender equality, parental leave has been expanded to encourage both parents to take time off work to share household tasks and care work when a new baby arrives.

Research has shown that generous, flexible parental benefits with a gender equality focus increase both uptake of parental leave by fathers and time spent with children.1 This increased involvement has positive “spillover effects” on couple relationships since inequality in the division of labour can be a source of friction or even a cause of union dissolution.

In “The Effect of Expanded Parental Benefits on Union Dissolution,” researchers Rachel Margolis, Youjin Choi, Anders Holm and Nirav Mehta use anonymized administrative data to estimate the impact of the Québec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP) on separation and divorce rates, and explore how this has played out across married and common-law couples in the province compared with the rest of the country. Enacted in 2006, QPIP offers more generous and flexible leave and benefits than the federal benefits available in the rest of Canada, providing an illustrative case study for exploring the impact of these types of benefits on families and family life.

The authors followed couples who had a child in 2005 and 2006 (just before and after QPIP was introduced) in Quebec and the rest of Canada, using administrative data to measure parental benefits use and marital status to examine patterns of union dissolution through eight years after the birth. They find strong evidence that the policy has contributed overall to a 0.5 percentage point decrease in the separation and divorce rate among new parents, which represents a 6% decrease.

This unique and innovative study provides valuable insights on the impacts of the extended parental benefits policy, and a compelling focus on an unintended but positive policy impact. Even though the policy did not aim to keep couples together, it seemed to allow couples to better adjust to parenthood and more successfully implement the balance of work and family responsibilities.

Multiple impacts of parental benefits on family life and gender equality

Parental benefits and leave policies offer job protection and financial support after a birth, which has contributed to increasing labour force participation rates among mothers with young children. Data show that this participation rate increased across the country between 1998 and 2019, with the highest growth in Quebec, where the employment rate of new mothers with youngest child aged 0–2 increased from 65% to 80%, compared with 67% to 72% in the rest of Canada.2

When paid parental benefits are consolidated and shared among parents in heterosexual couples, it is common for women to use most or all of the leave. Policies with an explicit gender equality focus, such as those that offer “use-it-or-lose-it” non-transferrable leave available to fathers, encourage greater sharing of care and household responsibilities among fathers.

More generous and flexible parental leave has been available in Quebec since 2006 through QPIP, which includes non-transferrable leave for fathers, and since its introduction, it has been widely utilized and the growth in the employment rate of new mothers has outpaced the rest of the country. QPIP was modelled after progressive European policies, which in most contexts have been found to increase equal sharing of household tasks and care work.

In March 2019, the Government of Canada implemented a five-week parental sharing benefit, available to couples, including opposite-sex, same sex and adoptive parents, who share paid parental benefits. While this policy is less generous and doesn’t get rid of the two-week waiting period, it is explicitly aimed at promoting gender equality at home and in the workplace.3

Prior to the implementation of QPIP in 2006, the use of parental benefits among fathers was already twice as high in Quebec (25%), compared with the rest of Canada (13%). After the policy change, this percentage increased further, reaching 66% of fathers (whereas the rate in the rest of Canada remained low, at 13%). The most recent available data from Statistics Canada show that, in 2019, approximately 35% of spouses/partners (most of whom are fathers) of recent mothers claimed or intended to claim parental benefits, with significantly higher uptake in Quebec (86%) than in the rest of Canada (21%).4

QPIP associated with a decrease in separation and divorce, with greatest impact on egalitarian couples

When parents in heterosexual couples are deciding how to allocate shared parental benefits, it is common for women to end up using most or all of the leave. Couples often cite that decisions to have the mother take more time off than the father are being made on biological considerations (e.g. the woman’s postpartum recovery and breastfeeding) and/or financial situation (the partner with lower income – usually women – tends to be the most likely to stay at home). Thus, when there are weeks of benefits reserved for fathers exclusively, these policies make it easier for fathers to negotiate with partners and the workplace to use parental benefits.5

There are several explanations for why QPIP led to a decreased rate of separation and divorce among new parents. From the “egalitarian” perspective, which emphasizes role flexibility and shared responsibilities within a union, the authors outline several non-mutually exclusive factors that could be playing a role: a reduction in role conflict between partners, a strengthening of father–child relationships, shared responsibility for child care, and a shift in societal expectations.

Following their analysis, the authors find that parents whose child was born in Quebec after the enactment of QPIP were 0.5 percentage points less likely to be separated/divorced five years after the birth than those born before QPIP. This is a 6% decrease in separation/divorce from the rate observed before QPIP was enacted (8.6%) separating within five years.

Margolis and colleagues found that the policy’s greatest effects on decreasing union dissolution were among partners who were more likely to be egalitarian, that is, couples who earned relatively equal incomes before their child’s birth.

A broad lens provides fresh insights on family impacts

This study helps to improve our understanding of the ways in which family and employment policies can positively impact family relationships. Furthermore, it highlights the importance of a broad perspective in studying policy impacts, which can include outcomes that may have been unintended yet positive for family well-being.

This research recap was reviewed by Rachel Margolis, PhD.

Nathan Battams, Knowledge Translation and Mobilization, Vanier Institute of the Family

Gaby Novoa, Families in Canada Knowledge Hub, Vanier Institute of the Family


Notes

  1. Ásdis A. Arnalds, Guðný Björk Eydal and Ingólfur V. Gíslason, “Equal Rights to Paid Parental Leave and Caring Fathers: The Case of Iceland,” Icelandic Review of Politics and Administration, 9(2) (2013). Link: https://bit.ly/2PthuII.
    Ann-Zofie Duvander and Mats Johansson, “What Are the Effects of Reforms Promoting Fathers’ Parental Leave Use?,” Journal of European Social Policy, 22(3) (June 28, 2012). Link: https://bit.ly/31emG5I.
    John Ekberg, Rickard Eriksson and Guido Friebel, “Parental Leave – A Policy Evaluation of the Swedish ‘Daddy-Month’ Reform,” Journal of Public Economics, 97 (January 2013). Link: https://bit.ly/2PsBvPh.
    Rachel Margolis et al., “Use of Parental Benefits by Family Income in Canada: Two Policy Changes,” Journal of Marriage and Family, 81(2) (April 2019). Link: https://bit.ly/3fw6W6i.
  2. Martha Friendly et al., Early Childhood Education and Care in Canada 2019, Childcare Resource and Research Unit (December 17, 2020; revised February 12, 2021). Link: http://bit.ly/3bvRB3q.
  3. Employment and Social Development Canada, Parental Sharing Benefit (page last updated March 18, 2019). Link: https://bit.ly/2QpR2Qr.
  4. Statistics Canada, “Employment Insurance Coverage Survey, 2019,” The Daily (November 16, 2020). Link: http://bit.ly/3btaVNB.
  5. Lindsey McKay and Andrea Doucet, “Without Taking Away her Leave” A Canadian Case Study of Couples’ Decisions on Fathers’ Use of Paid Parental Leave, Fathering, 8(3) (September 2010). Link: https://bit.ly/3fabwqF.
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