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Watch: Experts discuss the 2021 American Family Survey

The seventh annual BYU-Deseret News survey asks American families how they thrived and where they faltered

SHARE Watch: Experts discuss the 2021 American Family Survey
American Enterprise Institute hosted a panel discussion on Tuesday about the 2021 American Family Survey.

American Enterprise Institute hosted a panel discussion on Tuesday about the 2021 American Family Survey.

The pandemic has not hurt American families as a whole as badly as it might have, despite huge disruptions to family life including lost wages, more remote work, virtual schooling, and difficulty accessing physical and mental health care.

But there’s no question that not all families have experienced it the same way. Factors like party politics, family structure and household income made a difference in how families experienced the pandemic, according to the 2021 American Family Survey.

The nationally representative study, now in its seventh year, is a collaboration between the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. It was released Tuesday in Washington, D.C., with a virtual panel discussion hosted by the American Enterprise Institute.

“This year, while much of the data confirms our concerns that America is deeply divided, the 2021 American Family Survey also provides hope, revealing great resiliency by American families, and some agreement in surprising ways,” said Doug Wilks, executive editor of the Deseret News, in his opening remarks.

The survey digs down to the “tectonic plates” shifting beneath families, said panel moderator Karlyn Bowman, an American Enterprise Institute senior fellow.

As COVID-19 raged, governments — particularly at the federal level, but also state and local levels — emerged as heroes that helped families avoid the worst of what was potentially disastrous financial fallout from closed businesses, lost jobs and reduced work hours.

Fewer families reported significant financial hardship this year than did during the years immediately preceding the pandemic — a finding Wilks called “remarkable.”

But among those who did experience a change in finances, the rich were more apt to be buoyed and the poor more apt to be buffeted.

The study’s authors, Jeremy C. Pope and Christopher F. Karpowitz, who co-direct the center at BYU, said the survey suggests that the amount of federal stimulus and other aid provided directly to families made a difference that held widespread financial crisis in check. Striking numbers of respondents across income levels who received stimulus money said they needed those checks to get by, including a quarter of Americans with household incomes above $80,000.

Pope highlighted some additional conclusions that can be drawn from the survey, which was taken by 3,000 American adults between June 25 and July 8. The survey showed:

  • COVID-19 hasn’t broken families, though it has stressed them.
  • Government aid clearly made a difference.
  • Racial differences remain significant in education policy.
  • The public wants the right families to get help.
  • There is a worrisome slight softening in support for the institution of marriage.

Relationships were durable, and more than half of married or cohabiting couples said they appreciate their partner more during the last year, while they were going through the pandemic. The survey found just 1 in 10 questioned the strength of their relationships, and “many married and cohabiting people found strength and support from their partners during the pandemic,” Karpowitz said.

But the survey still showed what Pope called “cause for concern but not alarm” regarding the institution of marriage. Researchers have asked about certain beliefs about marriage all seven years, including whether it makes society better off or if it’s outdated. Incrementally, support for the institution has weakened slightly.

Sociologist Brad Wilcox, a survey adviser, found the marriage data troubling. Culturally and practically, it provides more evidence that marriage is losing ground, said Wilcox, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He described what he calls a “marriage paradox,” where people are less likely to embrace an institution that affords them many benefits, not just emotionally, but economically.

Pope said in his classroom he sees students reluctant to say positive things about marriage because they don’t want to sound “exclusionary,” like they are judging other people’s choices. That may be reflected in the survey findings, too, he said. But he added the survey showed those who are actually married are “pretty happy about it.”

In addition to exploring the pandemic’s impact on work, family and community, the survey and the accompanying panel examined attitudes about race, including how racism should be taught — or avoided — in classroom discussions. 

One of the biggest gaps in the findings concerned how schools should address the history of racism. While wide partisan agreement exists that students should learn about progress made when it comes to race relations, American adults were polarized dramatically on how history of racism should be taught.

The survey found American families don’t typically have many social interactions with people of other races, with very few reporting they’d provided a job reference, arranged a play date for their children or hosted someone in their home from a different racial group within the past five years.

Racial divides are an area survey adviser Richard V. Reeves, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he hopes to see delved into more in future editions of the American Family Survey. The lack of people getting to know and interact with people of other races should be explored, he said.

Partisan politics plays a role in views on race, Reeves noted. He pointed out the finding that 88% of white Democrats and 24% of white Republicans think Blacks face obstacles others do not as the biggest gap in the survey.

“White Democrats want to lean in,” said Karpowitz. White Republicans are very opposed. 

It will be harder and harder to build bipartisan solutions if people see problems totally differently based on their politics, said Reeves.

The American Family Survey showed families do care about each other and they want to help others, including through funding programs for those in need.

“The general attitude is government should be helping people,” Pope said. “They want families to get help, but they want the right families to get help.”

That attitude crosses partisan lines, but independents and Democrats are more supportive of providing aid to those in need than Republicans, of whom 43% said no. Partisanship also appeared when people were asked how well the government responded during the pandemic crisis.

Three points stand out for survey adviser Marcia J. Carlson, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: Resilience, inequality and support. Families “generally weathered the storm quite well,” but she said she’d like to see what happens next, when the pandemic is behind them.

The needs — and the response — helped boost how people felt about not just the government, but also churches. Even when some houses of worship went online, they continued to check in and help their congregations.

Racial minorities, those with fewer resources and women were hit hardest, said Carlson, adding that attention should be paid to the striking inequalities revealed by the pandemic and the survey.