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Generational and political gaps in views about marriage and family revealed in new poll

Posted October 21

More than 90 percent of parents over the age of 65 were married when they first had children, but only 30 percent of those younger than 30 were married when their first child was born, finds the second annual American Family Survey, a wide-ranging national study of American family practices and attitudes.

Releasing the 2016 findings Oct. 20, the study, commissioned by the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and conducted by YouGov, polled Americans on a range of topics including their beliefs on the stability of the family unit, ideal family structure, the desirability and value of marriage as an institution, appropriate parenting practices, the effect of economic factors on American families, degree of social connectedness, the diversity of modern family arrangements and the value of government benefit programs for families. The American Family Survey was created to contribute new research to ongoing policy and academic discussions about the changing American family.

The implications of the survey’s findings will also be discussed and debated during a moderated panel event, “Like Father, Like Son? Family Instability Across Generations,” to be held at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 20. Panelists include Richard V. Reeves, Brookings senior fellow in economic studies and policy director of the Center on Children and Families; W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia; and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director of The Hamilton Project and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“This second year of findings builds on the valuable data gathered by the first American Family Survey, expanding and deepening our research on the American family into the area of family economics,” said Allison Pond, Deseret News enterprise editor and a former Pew Research Center staffer. “It adds insight and context to election-year policy debates and provides a springboard for continued research and analysis.”

This poll is a year-over-year look at the changing American family through the twin lenses of political science and sociology. The poll revealed, among many other things, that 40 percent of families do not have enough savings to survive more than one month. Fifteen percent of relatively high-income respondents — those making more than $100,000 per year — reported proportionately similar savings levels. The poll’s data that the largest factor in rating government benefit programs for families such as food stamps, housing assistance or Medicaid, is experience with the programs rather than economic deprivation. Those who have benefitted from the programs consistently rate the benefits much more highly than those who have not experienced the aid of the programs.

“This year’s survey validates many of the findings of the first American Family Survey, including our observation that despite their ideological differences, liberal and conservative Americans have largely similar family lives,” said Christopher Karpowitz, associate professor of political science and co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy (CSED). “But the results also offer intriguing new findings. One of the most compelling is the correlation between respondents’ family stability today and the family stability they experienced as a child. In other words, family stability — or instability — appears to have a strong intergenerational component that deserves continued analysis.”

Some of the findings of the poll, which drew 3,000 responses from Americans across racial, religious, gender and age groups, include:

  • The way Americans approach marriage and having children varies dramatically across age groups. More than 90 percent of parents over age 65 were married when they first had children, but only 30 percent of those younger than 30 were married when their first child was born.
  • Just as in the 2015 American Family Survey, most respondents have positive views of their own marriages and families, with large majorities saying they are growing stronger or staying about the same. But they are less optimistic about the state of marriages and families generally, with most saying they are weaker or about the same.
  • Conservatives are more worried about the state of marriage and family, with 49 percent seeing today’s families as “weaker” while only 17 percent of liberals believe the same. Nearly two-thirds of liberals value a personal commitment to a partner as more important than marriage, while only one third of conservatives accept that idea.
  • Four in 10 Americans have faced significant economic challenges in the last year, including problems like not being able to pay a major bill or avoiding a doctor appointment because of cost. Experiencing an economic crisis is associated with family structure (married people experience them less) and other measures of personal and familial success.
  • Marital stability in a person’s childhood relates to their marital and economic stability as adults. Respondents whose mothers were continuously married to the same person throughout their childhood are 16 percentage points less likely to have experienced a financial crisis in the past 12 months. They are also 7 points more likely to be married today and 12 points less likely to be concerned about their current relationship.
  • Liberals and conservatives have very different views about marriage and families, but their marital and parenting practices are closely similar. For example, a vast majority of both liberals (84 percent) and conservatives (91 percent) believe parents should set boundaries on their children’s media consumption. Liberal and conservative families also eat dinner together, do chores, go out together and support family members’ activities at roughly the same rates.
  • That said, there are some social and economic differences depending on which candidate Americans support. Those who supported Donald Trump in the primaries were more likely to be male, more likely to be married, more authoritarian in their attitudes and less likely to have experienced any kind of economic crisis in the last year. Trump’s primary election supporters also included an unusually large number of voters who lacked as many connections outside their own family.

The poll was designed by Paul Edwards, editor of the Deseret News; Pond; Karpowitz and Jeremy C. Pope of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University; and Sam Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence. They consulted an advisory board which included Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; Sara McLanahan, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton; Richard Reeves, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former strategy advisor to the deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom; and Wilcox.

The American Family Survey was fielded by the YouGov polling company from July 25 to July 30, 2016. YouGov interviewed 3,268 respondents who were then matched down to a sample of 3,000 to produce the final dataset. The respondents were matched to a sampling frame on gender, age, race, education, party identification, ideology and political interest. The margin of error for this study is 2.48 percent.

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