These three R’s reveal who is most interested in marriage and having kids

A new study exposes a growing divide when it comes to post-COVID-19 family formation

With fertility at an all-time low and the share of never-marrieds rising, who’s most likely to get married and start a family as America moves into a — hopefully — post-COVID-19 era?

That’s the subject of a new report on American marriages that examines who wants or plans to marry and what they think of having children. “The Divided State of Our Unions”  was released Tuesday in Washington, D.C., by the American Enterprise Institute, the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institution at BYU.

The authors consider three scenarios: continuing freefall for fertility and a slowing of marriage post-pandemic; a “renaissance” where men and women “turn toward family formation in response to the existential questions and loneliness raised by the last year and a half”; and a situation where economic, religious and partisan divides keep getting deeper, polarizing family formation.

The latter is the most likely, according to the study authors. Based on findings of two new YouGov surveys conducted for Wheatley Institution and the Institute for Family Studies, the “desire to marry” rose a little bit, while the desire to have children shrank to 10% — nearly half of what it had been before the pandemic began. 

Meanwhile, the report finds “marked polarization in desires related to marriage and childbearing by income, religious attendance and partisanship as COVID-19 abates.”

In other words, the three Rs supporting family formation today seem to be “rich,” “religious” and “Republican.”

“The fortunes of the American family were falling when COVID-19 hit last year, and it appears that the pandemic may be pouring fuel on family formation divides that preceded the pandemic,” said Jason Carroll, associate director of Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institution and a professor in the BYU School of Family Life.

The authors describe a “pandemic-haunted world where both marriage and fertility seem especially daunting or optional.” But in the American version of that world, “money, hope and a deep dedication to family” seem key to family formation. “And the rich, the religious, and Republicans are generally more likely to possess one or more of these ingredients, compared to their lower-income, secular and Democrat/Independent-affiliated fellow citizens,” the report says.

Among report highlights:

  • For single rich Americans, the desire to marry increased 9 percentage points overall, compared to no more than 4 percentage points growth in lower- and middle-income groups.
  • Single religious people are more interested in forming families than their nonreligious unattached peers.
  • There’s a partisan gap, with single Republicans seeing a 5 percentage point increase in the desire to marry, compared to only a 3 percentage point increase for Democrats. And while desire to have kids fell “precipitously” for independents and Democrats, there was a very slight increase of 1 percentage point for Republicans. The report only mentions percentage changes and not total percentages of each group.

“What I see as the most interesting finding is the decline of interest in having children among lower-income Americans,” said Wendy Wang, research director at the Institute for Family Studies. “Traditionally, people with lower incomes tend to have more children, but the gap in fertility between the rich and poor has been narrowing in recent years. In our survey, we see the desire for children fell by 11 percentage points among lower-income Americans since COVID started, but stayed stable for higher-income Americans.”

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Wang noted that lower-income Americans are far less likely than others to marry. Combined with the drop in interest they demonstrate for having children, “we may see a growing group of lower-income Americans who are not married and are childless,” said Wang. 

That worries her, she added, because marriage and family provide emotional and financial benefits that boost overall well-being. That could help low-income Americans, who are already disadvantaged.

Carroll said that while some say the predictions that a record number of young adults will neither marry nor have children simply reflect their personal choices, he believes that’s cause for concern.

“Our report and other recent studies show that these trends are not uniform across income and racial groups in America,” he said. “And it is becoming very clear that family-formation processes are becoming increasingly central in producing economic inequalities in the United States.”

Hoping to marry?

The report indicates that nearly half of single adults in the United States say they’d like to get married someday, while another 30% are unsure, but not closing the door on the idea. Carroll said the country needs to “address both cultural and economic factors that can make marriage and parenthood more accessible for those who desire it.”

In a survey in May and June, the researchers found that among unmarried adults, 60% who were wealthy wanted to marry, compared to 45% of those with low incomes. Of those regularly attending religious services, 61% wish to marry, compared to 55% of those who attend less frequently and 45% of those who never or seldom attend services. The report also said a minority of unmarried independents and Democrats hope to marry, compared to 58% of single Republicans. And the latter are more likely to have already married.

The differences by income were not a surprise. But Carroll called differences between religious and nonreligious individuals “striking.” Americans who regularly attend religious services reported the “highest increased desire for both marriage and having children,” he told the Deseret News.

Besides Wang and Carroll, study co-authors were Brad Wilcox, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Lyman Stone, who is an adjunct fellow there.

The American Family Survey, released earlier this month by the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, found that marriage sometime in the future remains a goal for most single Americans, but young adults 18 to 29 are less apt to see it as necessary to a good life and more likely than other ages to view marriage as outdated. And nearly half of all adults say commitment to a partner is more important than marriage itself.

When the American Family Survey was released, Wilcox told the Deseret News that having parents who are married benefits children financially, boosts the chance they will go to college and makes them less likely to be incarcerated.

“When your family is strong and stable, you are, on average, more likely to flourish. And when it’s not, you’re more likely to flounder,” he said. He believes those who don’t see the value of marriage “just don’t know the science.”

The authors of the new report will discuss the findings of their research during an event at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., Tuesday at 5 p.m. Eastern. Panelists include Christine Emba, Washington Post columnist; Saagar Enjeti, cohost of “Breaking Points;” Emily Jashinsky, culture editor of The Federalist; Ramesh Ponnuru, nonresident Senior Fellow at the institute; and Isabel V. Sawhill, senior fellow at Brookings Institution. Paul Edwards, executive director of Wheatley Institution, will moderate.