WASHINGTON, D.C. — A growing number of Americans say the cost of raising a family and high work demands on parents are among the most important problems facing families today, while fewer point to sexual permissiveness in society and the availability of drugs and alcohol.
The third annual American Family Survey finds that economic issues are on the minds of American families in the age of Trump, with 62 percent of adults putting at least one economic issue in their top three problems facing families, up from 51 percent in 2015. The number citing cultural issues dropped 17 points, from 68 to 51 percent, during that time.
But Trump voters and Clinton voters do not generally agree on what the big challenges are for families. Those who supported Clinton were more likely to put at least one economic issue at the top of their list of concerns (78 percent to 43), while Trump voters prioritize cultural issues higher (68 percent to 40).
Nor is that the only question that illuminates vast political divides when it comes to issues that impact families.
The latest American Family Survey finds plenty of contrast between Trump and Clinton voters on social and political issues affecting families. The nationwide poll, conducted for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU, examines how adults view issues of marriage and parenting, family life and a diverse set of current topics that include cellphone use, addiction, health care priorities and immigration. The nationally representative survey of more than 3,000 American adults was conducted by YouGov and released in Washington, D.C., at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday.
This year's survey report reveals a sharp contrast in opinions between those who voted for Donald Trump, those who voted for Hillary Clinton, and those who did not vote. It focuses on vote choice instead of broader labels like "conservative" and "liberal" or party identification because vote choice provided “a cleaner split” on issues like immigration and health care reform, said Jeremy C. Pope, who, along with Christopher F. Karpowitz, co-directs the center and co-wrote the report.
Despite clear differences of opinion on hot-button issues, the American Family Survey has also historically found similarities in how families choose to live.
The survey is important because it looks at topics that are sometimes neglected in the current political climate, said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who consulted on survey design.
“Every day there are four new surveys on Trump’s approval rating, and I think there are a lot of things that pollsters used to focus on that are being neglected in favor of whatever is the hot media story," she said. "We’ve had dozens of questions on the Russia investigation but very few on one of the most important questions in our society: How families are faring and what challenges they face.”
The survey asked respondents to select three issues that challenge families from a list of 12 that included economics, culture and family structure and stability. The same list has been used since 2015 to track trends.
This year, as throughout the survey’s history, Americans said the greatest challenge facing the American family is parents not adequately disciplining their children. That number held steady with about half of Americans selecting it, while other top issues included the cost of raising a family (34 percent), high work demands and stress on parents (29 percent), more children being raised in single-parent homes (28 percent) and a tie between decline in religious faith/church attendance and difficulty finding quality time with family in the digital age (22 percent).
People prioritize issues based on their own anxiety, said Richard Reeves, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings Institution, who was also a project consultant. He sees “movement in the general balance” away from anxiety over family structure and culture. Roughly twice as many people selected the cost of raising a family as did changes in the definition of marriage and family (16 percent) or sexual permissiveness (14 percent).
“It’s interesting, given the economy is doing well from all indications and we’re facing an opioid crisis that in other parts of the survey we find is pretty challenging for families,” said Karpowitz. “I think that means the economic recovery hasn’t fully hit all families, or even that despite the recovery, some families still feel the pinch economically.”
Karpowitz said about 40 percent of those surveyed said they had a serious economic crisis over the past year, similar to the number who said the same in 2016.
It doesn’t surprise Lauren and Spencer Hanson, 22 and 24, of Provo, Utah, that families are concerned about financial pressures. Lauren recently graduated from BYU, and Spencer will in the spring. Parents of a baby, Lyla, they say they take financial matters very seriously.
“My biggest worry when we first got married was obviously finding a way to provide for my family,” he said. “That’s a huge concern for young couples; we’re all worried about finding a decent job that’s going to pay the bills and having enough money that our family will have a happy life.”
When he recently accepted a job offer, Lauren heaved a sigh of relief. She’s looking forward to getting a car whose most consistent feature isn't a lit check-engine light. They don’t have student loans to repay and they've saved every penny they can for a down payment on a future home, but money worries linger.
“It wasn’t that long ago that we were in crisis," said Hilary Levey Friedman, visiting assistant professor at Brown University. "I think there’s real concern these days that the American dream is less possible than it was. We know that the likelihood of a child earning more than his or her parents has gone down significantly over time."
Caring for others
On a number of issues, Clinton voters are more interested than Trump voters “in making sure that we care for those who have the least,” said Karpowitz.
Immigration is one that highlights the divide. “Trump voters have a hostility to immigrants that Clinton voters seem to totally lack,” said Pope.
For example, 73 percent of Trump voters oppose birthright citizenship — automatic citizenship for children born on American soil to undocumented parents — while 14 percent of Clinton voters and 40 percent of nonvoters felt the same.
That gulf narrowed somewhat, though, when the pollsters tried a family-centered experiment. They asked all respondents how they feel about deporting adults who are in the country illegally — but for half of respondents, they added “even if it breaks up families.”
“That drastically affects people’s attitudes,” said Pope. "They favor deportation much more when they aren’t reminded it breaks up families." Even Trump voters were affected by the changed question wording, though three-quarters of them still favored deportation.
“That’s quite radical,” said Reeves. “Birthright citizenship has been such an important part of (the American) identity and immigration policy.” He noted the number may be elevated because “these things are highly politicized and people are thinking much more in a political lens at the moment than more generally.”
Another area of stark disagreement is health care policy. When asked to make tradeoffs between competing policy goals, most Clinton voters said it is more important to see that everyone has access to health insurance (90 percent) than to lowering taxes. Trump voters emphasize tax cuts (76 percent), keeping insurance costs low (73 percent) and letting people opt out of insurance coverage (57 percent).
On other policy issues, Trump and Clinton voters agree — to an extent. For example, the public favors raising the minimum wage, though the average minimum wage favored by Trump supporters is $8.47 per hour, compared to $12.27 among Clinton voters. The overall average is $10.56 an hour, according to the survey.
Clinton voters rate food stamps and Medicaid programs highly, while Trump voters are more neutral than actively opposed.
But Pope said the survey may be picking up a "thermostatic response." "When conservatives are in power, it creates worry about what liberal programs might be affected and vice versa. People begin to give slightly more liberal responses. Election of a Democrat results in more conservative responses."
Raising a family today
On some issues, including views of marriage, the survey finds stability, said Karpowitz. Despite different opinions of the challenges families face, “love and care for families cuts across political lines.”
Trump voters favor more traditional marriage arrangements and worry about the state of marriage and family generally more than Clinton voters do, according to the survey.
Both Trump and Clinton voters think it’s important to have children and say that being a parent is part of their personal identities (92 percent overall). However, views of single motherhood are somewhat divisive.
Differences also appear in what families talk about with their teens. By far the most common topic for parents and teenage children is school and grades, with more than two-thirds of parents saying they discuss it, according to the survey. Trump and Clinton voters are more likely to talk to their teens about politics — roughly 30 percent do so, compared to less than 20 percent among nonvoters — and just over a quarter of all parents talk about relationships and dating. But Trump voters are much less likely than Clinton voters to talk to their kids about sex — and much more likely to discuss their religious beliefs.
Communication is a key issue for American families. The Hansons are similar to the two-thirds of American families who say they plan together what to do when they have a problem.
“We definitely consult with each other on everything we can,” said Lauren Hanson. “We know our problems are each other’s problems, and we try to work through them together. We disagree sometimes, but we really value each other’s advice.”
The survey also revealed that while married and cohabiting couples attack problems together at similar rates, cohabiting couples have more challenges agreeing than married couples (26 percent to 13 percent). And they are “much more likely” to feel that their relationship could be in trouble, compared to married couples. What isn’t clear from the survey is which way the causal arrow flies: It’s possible people cohabit instead of marrying because they know their relationship has trouble, or that getting married grounds the relationship, the researchers said.
The report classified people by family experience, noting differences between those who were married with kids, those who were “marriage-experienced” but less "child-experienced," and those who were the reverse. The experiences of having kids and being married is “fairly connected to attitudes and how one feels about policies," Pope said.
Those who have experience raising children but less experience with marriage tend to be poorer and less educated. This group, which includes single moms with little education, is the group that needs the most government outreach and help and has faced the most economic crises.
According to the survey, Clinton voters are more socially connected than Trump voters in the sense they reach outside their families for help if they need it. Trump voters and nonvoters are less apt to do that.
Samuel Sturgeon, Demographic Intelligence president and a survey consultant, said the twin themes of self-reliance and taking responsibility seemed to run through the responses of Trump voters throughout the survey.
While the survey had a roughly equal number of Trump and Clinton voters, it also found that about 4 in 10 adults didn’t vote at all for president in November 2016. And that might be an undercount, said Pope, since nonvoters may not admit it.
“It’s important to keep in mind that nonvoters are a big chunk of society and they tend to not feel as strongly. People forget nonvoters exist. … I want to say, ‘Name me another group you don’t want to think about that’s 4 in 10.’ We’re not talking about ferret owners here, “ he added.
The entire survey, including other questions and sidebar stories, is online.