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How attitudes on kids, money and marriage have changed over 7 years of the American Family Survey

Democrats and Republicans see problems very differently now, which could impact policies

Illustration by Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Views on which problems American families face and what should be done to solve them depends on more than personal experience within one’s own clan or neighborhood. Increasingly, political ideology seems to play a role in how adults in the United States rank challenges. And that could have ramifications for the solutions politicians craft and citizens rally behind.

Three presidents and their different policy preferences have served as a backdrop as American adults have told the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy what matters to them when it comes to family life in the organizations’ annual American Family Survey.

Since 2015, this survey has asked a large, nationally representative sample of adults to rank in order of importance the cultural, family structure and economic problems that confront families. It’s a broad list that highlights a range of possible issues, including how other people teach and discipline their children, the high cost of raising kids, sexual permissiveness, the decline of faith and crime.

A look back across the seven years reveals growing political division in the assessment of family life, according to Christopher F. Karpowitz, survey co-investigator with Jeremy C. Pope. The two also co-direct the center and teach political science at BYU.

“Over time, we’ve seen an increase in concern about economic challenges and a decline in concern about cultural and structural challenges. But these overall trends are driven by important political differences,” he said.

Karpowitz added, “Democrats and independents increasingly see family challenges as being primarily economic, while Republicans locate those challenges in cultural patterns — for example, a decline in faith — or structural issues like single-parent homes. These disparate views of what problems families are confronting leads to very different views about the right policies to strengthen families.”

The survey has over time documented other changes, too, including less commitment to the idea of being married among adults younger than 30.

“Stepping back from the institution is obviously not a mistake for everyone,” Pope said. “Some people aren’t ready or aren’t equipped. But I think I see more than that in the data. Some people are missing out on the institution of marriage in a way that will hurt them, the institution and the country in the long run.”

Pope believes the “slow but steady decline in younger Democrats getting married and having kids” could lead to a very different set of challenges for families and for society.

Different ideologies at play

Each year, respondents to the American Family Survey have been given a list of 12 challenges and asked to pick the three they believe are most significant.

The economic portion includes costs associated with raising a family, high work demands and the stress it puts on parents, lack of good jobs and lack of government programs to support families.

Cultural challenges include widespread availability of drugs and alcohol, the decline in religious faith and church attendance and crime and threats to personal safety.

Family structure and stability issues are parents not teaching or disciplining their children enough, more children growing up in single-parent homes, quality time for families in the digital age and changes in the definition of marriage and family.

How other people teach and discipline their children has consistently been the top concern. But other things have shifted, often along political lines.

“In 2015, 60% of Democrats were selecting at least one cultural factor as a serious problem. They were selecting economic problems more often: 73% of the time. Despite the 13-point difference, the two numbers were relatively close. But in 2021 a serious gulf has opened up,” according to the recent survey report. “Now only 38% of Democrats select cultural problems, while still, 77% of Democrats select economic problems. A similar shift is happening on structural issues, though 6 in 10 Democrats still see problems in this area.”

In 2021, the cost of raising a family and work demands topped the list of problems for Democrats. Parents not teaching or disciplining topped the list among Republicans, followed by a tie between single-parent homes and a decline in faith.

“While both Democrats and Republicans care deeply about their family relationships, they are growing farther apart in their diagnoses of the problems and their prescriptions for what to do about it,” said Karpowitz.

He added, “There is a real danger in seeing one party as more ‘pro-family’ than the other. The truth is that both parties want to strengthen families, but the conversation about family policy often involves partisans speaking past one another because they understand the challenges in such different ways.”

The challenges families face in the areas of family structure, culture and economics are very different, but they’re real, the duo said.

“The main thing that I think has changed is that Democrats and progressives have generally stopped thinking that cultural and family structure issues are terribly important problems facing families,” Pope said. “I think they’re quite wrong about this. But based on both data analysis and personal experience talking to people about the survey, Democrats on average have tended to decide that it’s really only economic issues facing families.”

Pope said Democrats aren’t wrong to focus on economics, but should track other problems, too.

“There is abundant evidence that such (economic) challenges are important to families, but there is a great deal of evidence that single-parent homes, divorce and other problems do cause challenges. Republicans probably do overplay cultural issues, but to their credit, I think they recognize that these challenges do exist and can be a problem,” he said.

What else changed?

Not everything has changed over time, of course. Some of the marriage numbers were remarkably similar. For instance, both the 2015 and 2021 surveys found that more than 4 in 10 said their marriages over the past two years had gotten stronger, nearly half said the marriage stayed the same and between 6% and 7% said their unions were weaker.

There was similarity, as well, in the view of marriages generally, not just one’s own, with about 5% saying marriages overall were stronger and about 40% calling them unchanged. The number who said they’d gotten weaker fell from 43% to 33%, with a commensurate increase in the number who said they just didn’t know.

Here, too, politics played a role. In both surveys, Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to say that marriages in general got weaker, at more than 50%. Moderates were in the middle on that question.

But some of the attitudes about marriage and family changed, sometimes significantly, since 2015. Consider these differences:

  • The share agreeing that marriage is needed to create strong families fell from 62% to 52%. Disagreement rose from 22% to 29%.
  • The share who said society is better off when more people are married dropped a bit from 52% to 45% and the number who disagreed rose a like 5 percentage points to 20%.
  • The share who disagreed with the statement that marriage is old-fashioned and out-of-date fell from 71% to 64%, while nearly 1 in 5 agreed in 2021, up from 1 in 8 in 2015.
  • Fewer people agree that the cost of having kids is affordable, at 25% in 2021, compared to 30% in 2015.
  • The share who say a good, hard spanking is sometimes necessary has decreased from 54% to 47%.
  • Asked if children need both male and female role models in their homes, 70% agreed in 2015, compared to 58% in 2021. The share who disagreed to some extent rose from 16% to 26%.
  • In 2015, three-fourths of adults agreed raising children is one of life’s greatest joys. In 2021, just over two-thirds agreed.