When it comes to family policy — whether the issue is immigration, divorce reform, safety nets and tax credits or government-funded pre-kindergarten programs —personal experiences may be just as important as one's political ideology in forming opinions, according to a new national survey. Awareness of how policies impact children can also influence views.
The American Family Survey found that Hispanics are more concerned than others, especially whites, about whether immigration policies keep families apart. It also found that the people most apt to favor simplifying divorce law are those who are separated. Safety-net programs like food stamps get a bump in support from those who've benefitted sometime in the past, and people with kids at home are more likely to favor family-targeted tax relief.
The American Family Survey was fielded by YouGov for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University using an online, nationally representative sample of 3,000 adults. It was released Nov. 17. Many of the topics are expected to be front-and-center during presidential campaigns this year — and some, like immigration reform, are already being debated with some fervor.
"Family background and life experiences seem to matter when we ask people to think about the role of public policy in affecting families," said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of CSED, associate professor of political science and co-author of the study. "Things they've experienced, things close to home, seem to matter quite a bit" — though the survey does not show direct causality.
Carolyn and Phil Cowan know the power of looking at family and marriage issues through a child-centric lens, Carolyn Cowan said, and they use it in their work with struggling families. "When we talk about parents and potential impact … we do a lot of imagining."
The Cowans retired as emeritus psychology professors from University of California Berkeley and are now, among other tasks, senior scholars with the Council on Contemporary Families. They have worked with both wealthy and poor parents to help them improve their parenting by improving their relationship. They have parents work through different scenarios and imagine what it's like for a child who overhears them. Awareness of children in situations "changes things dramatically."
It can also influence ideas about public policy on issues ranging from immigration to divorce.
The survey asked whether immigration policy should focus on reuniting families over helping people with in-demand job skills. The largest proportion, 47 percent overall, were neutral on the question. Nearly half of Republicans and conservatives opposed giving priority to families, while most independents and Democrats were neutral.
White respondents were far more opposed to a policy of reuniting families over allowing immigrants with skills into the country, with 36 percent against the idea, compared to 13 percent of Hispanics and 15 percent of blacks.
"Hispanics seem to have a different set of attitudes than others and are more concerned about keeping families together — probably because the policies have mattered more for Hispanics than for other groups," Karpowitz said.
People with kids at home were also more empathetic overall. They were 10 percentage points more likely to favor reunification (38 percent) compared to those who don't live with children (28 percent).
Race and ethnic differences were even larger on another immigration question, this one about deportation, again reflecting at least some influence of life experience.
Asked whether America should deport undocumented immigrants even if it separates parents from U.S.-citizen children, respondents' answers were evenly split between "oppose," "favor" and "neutral." But only 9 percent of Hispanics were in favor of deportation, compared to 19 percent of blacks and 39 percent of whites.
Most Republicans (54 percent) favored deportation even if it separates families. Democrats were opposed (58 percent), independents more neutral. Young adults ages 18-29 tend to oppose deportation (46 percent); a similar proportion of those 65 and older support it (44 percent).
While it's no surprise that experience shapes worldview, it was very apparent in survey answers about perceptions of programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, child tax credits and charitable and home mortgage tax deductions, Karpowitz said.
"We're finding that when it comes to government programs, having an experience with the program makes a substantial difference. That's also true of Republicans, who are somewhat more hesitant about these sorts of programs to begin with," he said.
Most people said they were either neutral or positive about the various programs' ability to help families. People who had benefited from a program felt better about its ability to help families — true of Republicans as well as Democrats. While Democrats generally liked the programs better overall, Republicans didn't dislike them — and their regard for the ability to help families increased if they'd ever been helped by it.
There wasn't a difference in how people view programs based on their own income, said Jeremy C. Pope, also co-director of CSED, associate professor of political science and co-author of the study.
While Democrats like most of the programs more than Republicans do, they don't like tax credits or the home mortgage and charitable tax deductions as much, said Pope.
Partisan differences also showed up around government funding of pre-kindergarten programs for children under 5.
Half of respondents were asked if they supported government funding of pre-kindergarten programs for "needy" children, while the other half was asked about programs for "all" children. About half (52 percent) of the group asked about needy children favored pre-kindergarten programs for them, compared to 45 percent of those asked about all children. On average, Democrats are somewhat more supportive than Republicans, and support from each rises 8 to 9 percentage points if funding is based on need. Independents cared less about the distinction between "needy" and "all" children.
"Families with children living at home seem to care about this quite a bit, as well," Karpowitz said. Among those asked about pre-kindergaten for all children, support was 13 percentage points lower among people without children at home — 41 percent compared to 54 percent of those with children.
Sam Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence and a consultant on the survey, said it makes sense that adults who live with children prefer child-based tax breaks.
"That's one of the interesting things about asking people about their families and politics. You can think about it in different ways than attitudes about the Iraq war or things that seem more distant," said Karpowitz.
The survey also asked about maternity and paternity leave, querying half of the sample about unpaid leave and half about paid leave and asking how long each should be. The order was randomized to see whether it made a difference if one was asked about paternity or maternity leave first.
When maternity leave was asked about first, respondents suggested about five months paid leave for women and four months for men. The number of months rose only slightly for unpaid leave. Both Republicans and Democrats support leave, paid or not, with no big differences by gender. They consistently wanted more time for women than for men, but the difference was greater if they were asked to consider maternity leave first.
"Even Republicans support paid maternity leave of nearly four months, which is considerably more than the 12 weeks of unpaid leave currently mandated by the federal Family Medical Leave Act," the report said.
Leave policy debates have heated up over the last couple of years. Phil Cowan noted that the United States is one of the only developed countries that doesn't subsidize families with some form of financial support such as paid parental leave.
The U.S. does offer some tax relief to certain families. The survey probed opinions on this policy, as well.
"Some people believe families with children should receive special tax relief. Others believe that all households should be taxed the same, whether they have children or not. Where do you stand on the issue?" the survey asked. Again, people answered based on their family life.
"There are some differences here by ideology," said Pope. "But the key difference is really whether or not you have kids."
Very conservative respondents with kids at home had the same view as very liberal respondents without kids at home.
Younger respondents favor special tax helps more than older people, while there were very few differences based on income, gender or race.
Responses to policy questions also changed when focus was placed on children. For example, the survey revealed significant differences in perceptions of divorce and social policy when the question was presented in a child-centric way.
The question contained an experiment to see how answers would vary if respondents were primed to think about children. All were asked whether divorce should be more difficult or easier to obtain. Half the respondents, randomly, had an additional condition added as a preface to the question: "When children are living at home."
When the question was set up to include children, people were less likely to want divorce made easier, 11 percent compared to 21 percent who answered the question in which children were not mentioned. Those with children living at home were less likely than others to say that divorce should be easier.
People who were currently separated from a spouse were much more likely than others to say divorce should be made easier, but even among this group, the presence of children made a difference. Half said divorce should be easier generally; only 27 percent said it should be easier when kids are present.
"Priming to think about children changes to some extent attitudes toward divorce," Karpowitz said. "They become more supportive of the idea of keeping families together or more supportive of the idea that marriage is helpful for society and especially helpful for children.
"I think one of the themes of the report is that people, both liberal and conservative, see the protection of children as being an important aspect of marriage and family life. When you specifically prime them to think about children, you see them bringing those considerations to bear," he said, adding the result is "less polarization."
Respondents 18-44 were also more likely to say divorce should be easier, said Pope, who added that young people's opinions might be more fluid because they have not had the same opportunities to make some life choices and they have more limited experience. "In general, young people have more liberal attitudes. But it's conflated by inexperience. … If we interviewed them later in life, we'd find some attitudes change substantially," he said.
The Cowans said the answer to whether getting divorced is always better than staying married for families with children depends on the level of conflict between the couple and the atmosphere leading up to it. The quality of the parents' relationship has real ramifications for the kids. After a divorce, ability to co-parent and collaborate for the sake of children is also very important. Transitions are hard on kids, too.
"We're not saying divorce is okay, just that it's a more complicated question," Phil Cowan said.
Gay marriage and abortion
One question asked how much, on a scale of 1-100, the Supreme Court's ruling to allow same-sex marriage would weaken (0) or strengthen (100) marriages overall. Results showed large ideological differences, said Sturgeon, who noted respondents weren't asked if they agree with the ruling. Fifteen percent did not answer.
Of those who did, results were consistent with ideological differences about the social meaning of marriage: The report notes that liberals see expansion of marriage as expanding the number of people who can benefit from the institution. Conservatives worry it will undermine marriage's value as primarily an institution for men and women to raise children.
Here's how groups, on average, scored themselves: very liberal 83, very conservative 13, moderates 50, Republicans 25, Democrats 61 and independents 43. Young people were more likely to say strengthen, older to say weaken.
Sturgeon speculated results might change if respondents were asked about effect on their own marriage. "It would not surprise me if most felt it would have very little impact on their marriage, but might affect marriages in general."
Phil Cowan said other research finds people who know personally someone who is gay are more likely to support gay marriage.
On the issue of abortion, the survey revealed "a pattern of results consistent with other surveys, but finding lower levels of support for abortion compared to other surveys that have asked that question," said Karpowitz. He speculated one reason might be those responding had just answered 100 questions about families and children. Placing the abortion question after questions about women's rights and empowerment might bring different answers, he said.
Regardless, the survey showed more support of abortion when the mother's health is endangered (73 percent) or the pregnancy results from rape (68 percent). Twenty-two percent support abortion for an unmarried woman who doesn't want a child, 25 percent for a married woman who doesn't want more children. It was about evenly divided if there was strong likelihood a baby would have a serious defect.
Democrats were more supportive than Republicans of abortion in all categories, but support did not reach 50 percent in several categories.
Of the entire survey, Carolyn Cowan said she sensed that while there were ideological divides, there was often more common ground than political debates might lead people to expect. "You can also see these people, these others — whatever the other is — as people with lives, with issues not always so very different from your own. That's very humane. And it makes a difference."
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