SALT LAKE CITY — If you ask Joseph Genda, 44, to describe himself, he starts with what he considers most important: He is a father, a husband and he is black.
Dig a little deeper and you hear other ways he identifies himself: He is a naturalized American citizen who was born in Sierra Leone, a breadwinner for his family here and abroad. He is a Christian, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is the center coordinator of an after-school program for Promise South Salt Lake.
Genda’s part of the crowd when he says being a dad and a husband are key to who he is. When the 2018 American Family Survey asked respondents how important being a parent or a spouse/partner are to their identity, around 70 percent who are part of couples said “very” or “extremely important,” putting family at the top of a list of personal roles. They deemed family relationships far more important than their religion (43 percent), career (37 percent), community (30 percent), race (29 percent) or political party (28 percent).
Noteworthy is that black and Hispanic Americans placed parental and spousal identities higher than white Americans did, though all three ranked family roles as the most important of the options.
The survey, now in its fourth year, is a nationally representative online poll of 3,000 Americans conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. The survey was conducted in August 2018.
Experts suggest how people see their own identities impacts not just family life, but views on issues from immigration to school funding and the survey bears that out, which doesn’t surprise Genda.
“I talk about family first because I have kids and I am married. Those are important to me. My family depends on me. That is why when I start to describe who I am, I have to say I am a dad,” Genda says.
“Because I am an immigrant, it is a privilege I’d like to see extended to others,” he adds. As a family man, he supports policies and programs he sees as “family-oriented. Anything that goes against that, I don’t support.” He notes, too, that “whatever happens to me might happen to someone else who also has a family, so I look at this, at people in the same category.”
But Richard Reeves, a senior fellow in economic studies at Brookings Institution and an adviser to the survey, says it’s important to remember that “family-friendly” may mean different things: A father may support gun control because he wants to keep his children safe. Or he may oppose gun control because he wants to keep his children safe.
“It’s not an easy transcription from identifier to a specific set of policies. It still could go either way. But it is a starting point in the conversation. How do we respond to people as we think about ourselves as parents especially?”
About 60 percent of those surveyed have children, true of 85 percent of married respondents and 54 percent of cohabiters.
In America’s partisan political climate, people seem “obsessed with partisan and racial and sometimes other identities,” says Jeremy C. Pope, who wrote the survey report with Christopher F. Karpowitz, his co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. “But in terms of how strongly people feel, those are dwarfed by their commitment to family. You don’t even need to have a husband or wife to understand that.”
Pope hopes findings will “reorient people” to realize labels like conservative or liberal “are useful in public debates and the social sciences, but the identities that matter most to people are identities within families.”
Reeves agrees. “The pro-family policy space which we already knew was pretty big may be even bigger than we thought, in some ways an enduring and unifying way to bring to life policy and how people think about themselves in the world. Policies intentionally about helping family and helping people who are parents especially seem to have even more political weight than we thought.”
That so many ordinary Americans put family first seems positive to him. “It’s potentially quite an encouraging finding,” with opportunities to “focus on things that unite us, not divide us,” he says.
The survey found race less salient for whites than for nonwhites — "Not surprising, since whites have been the majority for a long time in this country,” says Nicholas H. Wolfinger, professor of family and consumer studies and adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Utah. Race has been “tremendously relevant recently in national discussions,” he adds.
Wolfinger is among experts who caution against making too much of differences in the strength of family identity claimed by race. They also agree it’s hard to explain. One of Pope’s friends told him it might be that parenting a black teen “makes one feel a deep-seated protective urge to make sure that kid is OK in a society you feel has some level of hostility towards you. That amps up how consistently you take on that parent identity.” But Pope and his friend agree the explanation works for those proud of being parents, but not for those most proud of an identity as husband or wife.
“It seems plausible, and, indeed, the data bear out the claim that whites tend not to see their races as an important identity, while members of minority groups do see their race as an important identity,” the report says. Atheists also “stand out,” claiming fewer of the listed identities than other religious groups.
Pope uses a bit of his unrelated personal research to explain why survey findings may be a bit of “my tribe, not yours” in how people approach policies. People were asked opinions on issues involving some of Donald Trump’s earlier, more liberal positions. Pope cites Trump's "inconsistency on guns or his variability on taxes, but maybe the classic position shift is his waffling on abortion. He managed to take several distinct positions within the course of a couple of days." Some in the study were told Trump's position, some weren’t. “The upshot was, Republicans started taking more conservative or more liberal positions if they got that cue from Trump, the party leader." He thinks some may be more interested in supporting the party and feeling solidarity than in worrying about policy details.
Although the recession is over, the battering some families took lingers, says Reeves. The survey shows families still worry about the economic challenges they faced then. He expected cultural concerns to replace some economic ones by now, but it largely has not happened. “I almost think of cultural concerns as a luxury to worry about during good economic times, when you can afford to worry about them. That isn’t happening yet.”
No single formula creates identity. People have different ideas about components of identity, but agree biology and experience both contribute. “There’s increasing evidence everything from political beliefs to personality has some genetic basis,” says Wolfinger. “Not a preponderance. It hasn’t put me out of a job, but some evidence.”
“Identity is largely a function of our core personal goals — the goals that we care about the most, think about the most and (hopefully) spend the most time pursuing," says Martin E. Ford, senior associate dean in education and human development at George Mason University, by email.
Ask his identity and he says he’ll talk about his current and birth family or his job as a scholar, administrator and mentor. “My days are dominated by goals in those categories.”
But he may also say he’s a golfer, a piano player, a Penn State football fan, among others. Someone deeply religious may describe identity in terms of relationship with God, while someone with political aspirations may identify as a feminist or environmentalist of conservative, he explains. People describe themselves in lots of different ways, sometimes in context: “Italian-American, beach person, Texan.”
People also develop identities based on who they don’t want to be. Mia Holland, a psychology professor at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, who researches aspects of identity and self-image, hears people say they want to be just like their parents — or nothing like them. It’s also true, she says, that seemingly good parents sometimes have children who veer onto other paths, “not society’s best citizens.”
She suspects it’s not really all about choice, but that biology and neuropsychology also play a role, and it’s hard to sort out, like trying to understand why some lifelong smokers never get cancer and others who never smoke die of lung cancer.
She's not sure what matters most in forming identity: what's closest to us, like family and friends, or the bigger world in which we live. But she knows people make choices about who they will be all the time. She describes a friend whose father was “stoic, misogynistic and racist,” and the child who rejected his example and is nothing like his father. Others make different choices and some of that friend's generation perpetuate those negative characteristics. She wonders why.
Tribalism plays a role in identities people cherish, especially politics, Wolfinger says. “There’s a lot of data on that. Fifty years ago, only 5 percent of the country would be upset if you married someone from the opposite political party. In the results of a new study, 15 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats think it would be good if large numbers of the opposite party died. This is a very tribal moment."
The good life
Although being a parent or partner ranks at the top of personal identities, the survey says you don't have to be either to have a fulfilling life. The survey found men more than women view marriage and kids as essential. Republicans, blacks and Hispanics value being part of religious communities more than Democrats and whites do. And those with children at home are more likely to think marriage and children are necessary for a fulfilling life. Despite those differences, all groups ranked career, education, and income as the most essential aspects of a fulfilling life.
Those with strong parental identities were more apt to report they worship as a family, argue with each other, go out together and attend activities of other family members. Eating dinner and doing activities together at home were common among respondents, but proportions are higher for those with stronger family identities than for those with weaker ones.
Those identifying strongly as parents were also more concerned about their teenagers’ grades, trouble in school, social lives/friends and also their mental health.
Genda says his race matters because he is a minority. “It is a huge part of my identity, especially in this part of the country, which is predominantly white.” But he sees differences even within races. He came from a different country and his accent sets him apart. America-born blacks are likely to consider him an outsider, he says. Hs friends include blacks from West Africa, but also people of all races who worship with him each week. “Because of my faith, I can say I interact more with people who are white and LDS.”
Holland, at Bridgewater State, believes some cultures feel a “stronger sense of connection, commitment and fidelity than other cultures,” although it’s not always true of every member of the culture.
Politics are also shaped by personal experience and world view. For instance, Democrats and Republicans disagree about who naturalized citizens should be able to bring to America. Democrats generally favor immigration more strongly than Republicans and most Democrats believe citizens should be able to sponsor a child, a spouse, a parent, a sibling or grandparent, but most don’t support policies bringing aunts/uncles, nieces/nephews or cousins. Most Republicans believe naturalized Americans should be able to sponsor a child or spouse and they split evenly on bringing parents.
“Single respondents are more likely to favor sponsorship for immigration of all of the other extended family categories (but not spouses and children),” the report says. “This pattern is exactly the same for both Democrats and Republicans. ... Again, while it is difficult to interpret motivations for respondents and their beliefs about questions, these results are consistent with the idea that one’s family experience leads one to think about family connections in different ways.”
Pope and Karpowitz write “these results are consistent with the idea that one’s family experience leads one to think about family connections in different ways. Single persons appear to place more value on the extended family relationships than do married persons with children.”
And while Americans seem deeply divided, they’re also hypersensitive, Holland says, creating an atmosphere where people are afraid of offending anyone. Even comedians complain they can’t joke without fearing backlash.
While religious identity and racial identity are both more predictive in certain cases than family identity, they’re “far less important for predicting family behavior,” says Pope. That requires family identities.