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Does the state have a role in promoting married family life?

Statistics Canada will reveal the state of our nation, Wednesday, by releasing the first results from the 2011 census, focusing on population trends. There are those who believe the numbers will prove our country is committing demographic suicide.

The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada – it will not shock you to hear they are socially conservative – released an internationally co-authored report Monday arguing for urgent government action to promote larger families and two-parent households.

Actually, Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist who co-authored the study, expects to see Statscan report a slight uptick in Canada's birthrate.

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But two facts remain: First, our underfunded pension schemes and skyrocketing health-care costs stem in part from the simple fact that, sometime around 1970, Canadians stopped having the necessary 2.1 children per woman needed to sustain the population.

Second, an increasing number of children are raised in single-parent environments, which places them at greater risk of poverty, poor nutrition and inadequate education.

"Although there are always exceptions ... most scientists who study these questions would say that the stable two-parent family is better than the alternative," Prof. Wilcox observes.

For the authors of The Sustainable Demographic Dividend, government tax policies should encourage couples to have children; child care subsidies should allow women to balance work and parenting in whatever way most suits them; government advertising campaigns should promote the advantages of married family life (the authors cite studies showing married couples are more likely to stay together than those who cohabit), just as previous campaigns warned against cigarette smoking or driving while impaired.

The Harper government hears this message, which is why it prefers direct child care grants to parents rather than subsidies for daycare centres, and is promising income-splitting for families with children once the budget is balanced. (This will allow parents to pool their income for tax purposes.) Many of these policies infuriate those who have fought for women's equality. But in terms of pure social utility, the family-values crowd has a point.

The decision by couples across the developed world to have fewer children was, for decades, a social blessing. It gave women the freedom to work, it increased family income, and it allowed parents and governments to lavish resources on those children who were around, leading to improved education and productivity.

But we're paying a price for all those children who weren't born, because today they're not working and paying taxes and contributing to pension plans. They're not buying houses and cars and sofas. They aren't inventing anything or starting up new businesses or writing songs. They are a generation of potential, lost.

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Canada has covered part of the gap through immigration. But we would have to take in many times the 250,000 or so people who come here every year to fully replace the missing children.

For many people, it's worth delaying retirement and paying more for health care in exchange for the social revolution that a declining birth rate made possible.

Yes, growing up in a stable household with a mother and father committed to each other is the best world for a child. But being able to have and raise a child outside marriage, or on your own completely, or in a gay relationship, without being branded by an intolerant community is just as important. Security matters, but so does diversity.

But balance matters, too. Why should government policies favour working parents over those where one chooses to stay home to focus on the children? Why shouldn't parents have the flexibility and freedom to choose the child care they prefer?

Though the idea of a government advertising campaign promoting married families still feels deeply weird.

Follow John Ibbitson on Facebook and Twitter @JohnIbbitson

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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