When asked about the most pressing issue facing American families, Adam Torkildson passed by the cost of raising children, the pandemic and the internet.

As he sees it, the No. 1 problem confronting parents is the changing definition of what comprises a family.

“When a family has a father and mother who stay together and raise their children in love and faith, those children grow up to be very strong, independent and hardworking. Obviously, the way the world works, we’ve always had things that can stress us out, there’s always something to be afraid of, but with a strong core family, you can get through it all,” Torkildson, a father of two who lives in American Fork, Utah, said.

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The 38-year-old digital entrepreneur has company in the 25% of Republicans who similarly believe that the definition of marriage is among the most important issues facing families. But on this, and other cultural issues, there’s a “serious gulf” between Republicans and Democrats, according to the 2021 American Family Survey, released Tuesday by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

Just 7% of Democrats chose the definition of marriage as one of their top three concerns. They are also significantly less likely than Republicans to choose the decline in religious faith and sexual permissiveness as serious problems facing families. Over the seven years of the survey, this has been a notable change, said Jeremy Pope, a political science professor at Brigham Young University and co-investigator of the survey.

This year, fewer than 1 in 10 Democrats picked cultural issues like sexual promiscuity or a decline in faith when asked to choose three problems confronting American families. Republicans, on the other hand, were more likely to choose cultural issues than work demands, lack of good jobs and even crime.

A partisan divide was even evident in how Americans assess the cost of raising a family.

Half of Democrats and 41% of independents cited the cost of raising children as one of the biggest problems facing families, while just 20% of Republicans did, but economic concerns were still among the top worries for families overall.

Here’s a look, based on survey findings, at how Americans assess other challenges confronting their families and how this has changed over time.

Adam Torkildson poses for a portrait at his house in American Fork on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021 | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Worries about faith

Three thousand adults took part in the American Family Survey, fielded June 25-July 8 by YouGov. Now in its seventh year, the annual poll examines how American families live, love, and prosper or struggle amid current events. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

The question about the biggest issues facing American families has been asked in each of the seven surveys, with some variations. This year, respondents were asked to choose their top three concerns among nine choices in three categories: economics, cultural, and family structure and discipline.

In economics, the cost of raising a family easily outranked the other three choices: work demands, lack of programs and lack of good jobs.

In the cultural category, Republicans’ concern about the decline in religious faith (43%) stood out among the other options. The survey reveals a 22-point gap between Republicans’ No. 1 cultural concern and their second, which is sexual permissiveness (21%).

But there is an even bigger gap between the Republicans’ answers and those of Democrats.

Just 9% of Democrats say that a decline in faith is a major concern to families, and 8% say that about sexual permissiveness. Independents occupy the middle on both issues: 15% and 16%, respectively.

There is also a wide partisan gap for two issues in the category called family structure and discipline. Large shares of Republicans see lack of discipline (56%) and the rise of single-parent homes (43%) as a problem, compared to 30% and 15% of Democrats, respectively.

Democrats, however, are slightly more likely (22%) to consider the digital age a problem for families than both independents (16%) and Republicans (16%).

A ‘shifting set of views’

Over the life of the American Family Survey, the issue of parents not teaching or disciplining their children has always been near the top of Americans’ concerns, said Pope, who has been involved with the survey from its beginning. While this is most true for Republicans and independents, there’s a “pretty healthy share” of Democrats who worry about this, too.

Concern about the cost of raising a family consistently ranks among the top choices, too.

To Pope, what stood out most this year was the disinterest in cultural issues among respondents who identified as Democrats. In previous years, “They used to list cultural things much more often, and they’ve stopped listing cultural things as a threat to the family,” Pope said, adding, “They never picked the decline in faith that much, but all these other things have fallen off dramatically.”

Republicans’ views over time, however, have remained relatively stable, while independents have inched closer to Democrats’ views.

“This represents a shifting set of views by partisanship. Democrats increasingly see family challenges as essentially economic, while Republicans (who were far less likely to say family challenges were economic in the first place) still see them as mostly cultural and structural,” the researchers wrote.

Another surprise for Pope was that relatively few respondents, regardless of party affiliation, expressed worry about crime. “Given that we know crime spiked over the past year — and it spiked everywhere, not just in a few cities — I would have thought that crime would have really popped this year, and it did not.”

In fact, crime was the only category ranked nearly equally among Republicans (12%), Democrats (14%) and independents (14%).

The Torkildsons — father Adam, daughter Katrina, mother Adrienne and son Noah — play with their dog, Misty, in the backyard of their house during a photo session in American Fork on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021 | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

‘Parents need help’

For Torkildson, his choice of family definition as a primary concern stems from his belief that marriage was ordained by God to be between one man and one woman, and that a strong marriage gives the family strength to overcome the other problems.

Elissa George, the mother of a 2-year-old who lives in Provo, Utah, chose differently, but for a similar reason. She sees the digital age as an overarching concern that leads to other problems, including polarization, even within families. “Now things are either good or bad, black or white,” she said.

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Similarly, Elizabeth Wickham, a mother of two adult children, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, chose the digital age, as well as the cost of raising children.

“There’s been so much research about how all this screen time is affecting young females with depression and anxiety. They’ve got so many problems that we didn’t have when (my generation) was growing up.”

Of the top picks overall — teaching/discipline of children (41%), cost of raising children (38%), work demand (29%) and single-parent homes (27%) — it’s the cost of raising a family that has the most potential for policymakers to find a solution. The survey found robust support for child tax credits, particularly among Democrats and independents.

One clear take-away from 7 years of the American Family, Pope said: “Parents need help. They need help with the cost of raising kids.”

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