A new survey of American families shows how the “storm clouds of politicization” affect who decides to get married and other aspects of family life, one of the lead researchers said during a panel discussion that brought together leading experts on family in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.

And marriage is not the only place with hints of rough weather when it comes to how Americans see family life, Christopher F. Karpowitz, co-author and co-investigator of the American Family Survey, said during the release of the survey, now in its ninth year.

The survey also revealed partisan divides over what to teach children in school, what challenges families face, and how to help the growing number of families facing economic crises as government programs that existed during the pandemic have ended. 

Partisan ideology colors views on abortion, whether sagging fertility rates are good or bad, and even to what extent social media contributes to teen mental health challenges.

The survey found while most married people enjoy their own marriages, they think the institution of marriage is in trouble. And support for marriage is declining among groups that used to be among the most apt to marry, including those with high levels of education and good income, said Karpowitz, who remotely joined the panel discussion to release the survey’s 2023 findings.

The survey was conducted by YouGov for the Wheatley Institute and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University and Deseret News. The nationally representative sample of 3,000 U.S. adults has an error margin of 2.1 percentage points.

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“It’s especially concerning when that kind of culture war rhetoric has the potential to undermine the things that really do support families, and that would help families at all income levels,” said Karpowitz, who co-wrote the study with Jeremy C. Pope. The two are political science professors at BYU.

Married people are happier, according to W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project at University of Virginia. He said his own research for the Institute for Family Studies shows people who “identify marriage as a core institution” generally enjoy happier marriages. 

Wilcox lamented that marriage has been disincentivized among working-class Americans through policies that penalize marriage when it comes to providing support. He recounted a recent dinner where he and his wife were talking about marriage and their waitress said she and her partner were not married because if they got married she would lose Medicaid benefits for herself and her children. 

He said the challenge is programs should be set up to work for couples like the woman, so it won’t make more financial sense not to get married. Such policies often have “kind of a subtle effect on the character and quality of the relationship and the kids’ perception,” he noted.

On the findings about social media in the survey, Isabel Sawhill, a Brookings Institution scholar, called it “fascinating — and discouraging and troubling” — that parents worry about kids and social media and want government to do something, but don’t take action themselves with their children. “I suspect they are overwhelmed by technology or afraid their kids are going to be disadvantaged with their friends and communities” if they aren’t active on social media, she said.

The survey, among other topics, found big differences on what adults believe should be part of sex education in schools, though there was broad support for teaching something on the topic. 

Richard V. Reeves, president of the American Institute for Boys and Men, said he was concerned that more parents didn’t prioritize including the effects of pornography as part of sex education. 

“In a world where pornography is essentially ubiquitous, and the use of it is essentially universal among boys, for that not to be part of the curriculum — the boys may not understand what it is, what it can do to your brain or the addiction, etc. I thought that was in some ways one of the most troubling findings of the survey. It suggested to me parents are not taking seriously enough the potential effects of pornography,” he said.

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Some of the disagreements seen in the survey may be due to different assumptions about even the words that are used, based on partisan lenses, Reeves said. He noted that many answers on the survey indicate Americans think differently about words like “racism” or “consent.” 

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“In other words,” said Reeves, “they’re hearing a question behind the question.”

That idea isn’t a surprise to Daniel A. Cox, who directs AEI’s American Survey Center. He said surveys on qualitative issues show that Americans often have more complex feelings about issues than a first line of questioning reveals. 

“In most cases, it takes a number of questions to fully flesh out someone’s attitudes on these questions. We even ask Americans, do you think abortion is a simple issue or a complicated matter — and most Americans say it’s complicated,” said Cox, who moderated the discussion. 

Not all issues reflect partisan divides, said Sawhill, who noted a near-universal challenge is the “time squeeze.” She said parents have a hard time reconciling the demands of work and the demands of taking care of the family — and that women, in particular, wrestle with it. She said she’d like to think that now that people have gone through a pandemic that has disrupted their lives, people can talk about not just whether they work in person or remotely, but how to make work more flexible.

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