The American Family Survey is an annual, nationwide study of 3,000 Americans by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. See full survey report.

The American Family Survey is an annual, nationwide study of 3,000 Americans by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. See full survey report.

When Liz and Jordan Ott were pregnant with their first child seven years ago, money was tight. He wanted to study web development but needed to do it full time, so he quit his job as a welder. She was transitioning jobs, too. Though the Saratoga Springs couple thought it through first and made plans, an income based on savings and a credit card was somewhat terrifying, she said.

Lots of Americans have used the same strategy, albeit often unwillingly, since COVID-19. And while the Otts have maintained their credit score and now have stable jobs and income, that’s not true for all Americans.

Inflation and economics are a concern for a hearty share of the country, according to the latest edition of the American Family Survey, a nationally representative poll by YouGov for the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

The survey of 3,000 U.S. adults, fielded Aug. 8-15 and released in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, finds 89% of Americans at least somewhat concerned about inflation — and 56% are very worried. Moreover, large shares say they’re paying much more for basics like food and transportation; at least half worry their incomes won’t keep up. The survey’s error margin is plus or minus 1.9 percentage points.

The survey, now in its eighth year, is a near-real-time look at U.S. family life, from the strength and durability of relationships to the worries parents have for their children. It explores attitudes about abortion, gun control and immigration. It asks about employment, finances, household chores, technology use, school safety and even who feels lonely.

Besides economics — cue inflation worries — the study shows deep political divides on topics of family concern ahead of the election midterms. It also reveals potential for political compromise.

While the survey finds an uptick in economic crises households face, it doesn’t show the cause, said Jeremy C. Pope, BYU political science professor and study co-author with colleague Christopher F. Karpowitz, who additionally directs the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

“It could be just there was a lot of economic aid during the pandemic. Now that aid has largely gone away … it’s a little more likely that you’re going to miss a bill or not have enough to eat or skip a doctor’s appointment,” said Pope. “It’s also possible that as everything is getting more expensive, people’s wages are not able to catch up.”

If inflation persists and incomes don’t rise as people face sizable needs, “that’s going to stretch them into credit cards, or force them to cut something out or skip all sorts of things,” Pope said.

Jordan Ott finishes off the kids’ mac and cheese as daughter Addy works on her homework and son Westley plays with Play-Doh at their Saratoga Springs home on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Economy blues

Regarding inflation, 34% of Americans blame the Biden administration, while 26% blame supply chain disruptions, 10% the war in Ukraine and 9% former President Donald Trump. Democrats are far more likely to blame supply chain (44%), while Republicans (70%) blame the Biden administration. Just 4% overall blame Federal Reserve policies, which “stuns” Pope. “That is the Fed’s major job: to control inflation and interest rates, to keep the economy on an even keel,” he said.

He doubts “inflation can be boiled down to something Republicans or Democrats did in recent years because inflation is affecting more or less the entire world.” Still, “the fact of inflation and rising interest rates is going to make it more difficult for governments to help people with those bills.”

Karpowitz predicts economic issues will be on people’s minds as they vote next month.

The economy is also the road on which the “American dream” travels. That dream starts with the notion that successive generations build on their parents’ accomplishments, letting them do better themselves as adults. 

“We find just dramatically lower levels of belief that people today are better off than their parents were at the same age and low levels of belief their children will be better off than they are,” Karpowitz said, calling long-term pessimism about prospects for economic mobility “worrisome.”

This poll is 8 years old; others have asked that question for decades. In April 1980, 88% said they were better off than their parents. In the 2022 survey, only 40% believe they are better off. Just one-third believe their own children will do better than they have.

Between a quarter and a third answer “worse off” when asked those questions.

Blacks and Hispanics are considerably more confident their children will do better, with 70% and 60% saying they’re at least somewhat confident. Among whites, 55% say they are “not at all confident.” Parents are more confident than nonparents that life for younger generations will improve.

Americans are also at least somewhat worried about interest rates (72%), the national debt (68%), lack of government assistance (54%) and unemployment (52%).

Asked about rainy day savings in case of job loss, 33% said they could last less than a month and an identical 33% said they could live at least six months on their savings. More college grads say they could last 6 months or more, but 18% of them said a month or less.

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The Otts buck that trend. Should an unexpected crisis arise, she admits she’d likely panic. Her husband, “Mr. Logical,” would calm her down. “He is so good with finances because he grew up with nothing. He’s going to make sure that never happens for his kids,” she said, adding they’ve worked hard to build a safety net.

“It would have to be pretty devastating — like we both lost our jobs and the house burned down.”

Westley Ott, 2, kisses his sister, Lily, at their Saratoga Springs home on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

A family’s strength

Brad Wilcox, senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and executive director of the National Marriage Project, thinks marriage is a hedge against loneliness. Survey findings seem to agree.

The survey over time shows a “small but meaningful” decrease in the share of Americans who are married and a matching uptick in those not in relationships. In 2015, half were married. In 2022, the number was 45%, while those not in a relationship rose from 32% to 37%. “These changes appear to be enduring, not merely a blip,” the report says.

Married individuals are the least likely to say they lack companionship, feel left out or feel isolated, the survey found. But Wilcox, who consulted on the survey, notes the loneliness gap between the married and those not in a relationship grew between 2019 and 2022.

“The paradox looking at this from the 10,000-foot level is that this institution is less likely to govern and guide the lives of American men and women, on one hand, and yet looks like it’s more valuable than ever,” he said.

He said the Federal Reserve found the financial “marriage premium” on assets has increased in recent years.

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While marriage matters emotionally and financially, Wilcox said, he sees a more personal tragedy playing out in outcomes for children. “We published a brief showing there’s no decline in the link between family structure and kids’ odds of being held back in school or being suspended or expelled, or on scores,” said Wilcox. “(The link) is actually stronger. The benefit of having two stably married parents when it comes to school outcomes is more pronounced now than for an earlier generation of American children.”

While the survey found people somewhat skeptical of the quality of marriages generally, they are satisfied with their own. “People who marry and get into families are very happy with them,” said Pope. “There isn’t an enormous amount of variation in who is happy and who is not.”

Family crisis

Crisis can change that satisfaction, but usually temporarily, Pope said. “I don’t want to minimize divorce or the kinds of struggles that people go through. But eventually, they tend to right the ship and their family ties work out well for them again.”

Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in economic studies at Brookings Institution, said she believes two committed parents in a home provide the best chance at stability for children. Still, “nobody, least of all me, wants to be disrespectful to single parents. If you’re a single parent, you’re a single parent and we should really support you. But if you’re asking what we want the future of family to look like in America, I don’t want everybody to be a single parent.”

She notes, though, that committed relationships aren’t just with partners, but with others, too, including parents. “A child needs the stability of a family that’s going to be there for him or her, regardless of what else is going on.”

Many things can impact children, from being bullied to living in a community hit by a hurricane, or COVID-19 or inflation that makes everything suddenly unaffordable, she said.

“I just think that your relationships with others, and especially with your family, are so critical to well-being that what I would be concerned about is that we are losing some of the security that used to come with knowing that you had a family there that was going to stick with you,” Sawhill said.

Affluent families and poor families face some different threats, she said. Others, like inflation and unemployment or COVID-19, come and go.

“We have a lot of external instability buffeting our lives. I think we need resilience, I think we need a home in the storm. And that usually comes from a committed relationship.” 

Angel Acosta, 13, falls as he plays with his younger brother, Ares Acosta, 5, as their father, Andy Acosta, watches at their home in West Valley City on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2022. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Happy together

Marci and Andy Acosta of West Valley City, Utah, have two kids at home full-time, ages 13 and 5, and two teens from his previous marriage there part time. He also has two adult children.

Because he works remotely, Andy’s a stay-at-home dad; she works part time at a law firm. 

They do many family activities together and love to take road trips when they can. When the Deseret News called, the Acostas were just back from their annual trek to San Diego. They’re also a football family — their youngest teen plays — so they do that every Saturday during football season.

“It takes a lot of time in our lives, but we love it,” she said.

Politics may seem to divide Americans, but has little impact on how U.S. families live.

“There are more similarities than there are differences across political lines. Even though Republicans and Democrats disagree with each other about many aspects of public policy that affect families, when it comes to the day-to-day life of families, Republican families and Democrat families look pretty similar in a host of ways,” said Karpowitz. “I think that’s important to understand. Though there are issues that divide us, family life is kind of a constant.”

The survey has consistently shown conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats differ by more than 10% only on weekly worship as a family (44% for Republicans, 15% for Democrats) and weekly socializing with friends (nearly half of conservative Republicans and just over one-third of liberal Democrats). Elsewhere, the survey finds them “remarkably similar.”

Moderate Democrats socialize more and worship together more often than moderate Republicans, possibly because many Black Americans identify as moderate Democrats.

About three-fourths of Americans eat dinner, watch TV, play games and do other activities together weekly. About 60% do chores together weekly and about 40% socialize with friends or discuss politics. “Fewer Americans say they attend family activities, worship together or have arguments on a weekly basis,” the report says.

Income matters more than politics. Those with higher incomes are more likely to have dinner together, attend outside activities, do chores together and discuss political and social issues. Those with low incomes say they go to family members’ activities yearly or less, though income doesn’t matter on worshipping together or socializing with friends.

The Otts now have three children: Adelyn, 6, Westley, 2, and newborn Lily. Life is a hectic but happy tumble of school and day care, full-time remote work for parents and part-time play. They’re somewhat less structured than they plan to be, said Liz Ott, so sit-down dinners are reserved for Sunday at her mom’s house with Liz’s siblings.

When the kids are older, they’ll have more formal dinners at home, too. “Kids do better with that,” she said. “So it’s definitely something I want. But with a 2-year-old and a newborn, it’s not happening as often as I was hoping.”

They’re already working on responsibility. Addy is expected to keep her room clean and tidy up the toy room and her bathroom.

Marci Acosta hugs her son, Ares Acosta, 5, after he fell while the family was watching football at their home in West Valley City on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2022. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Making sure the children know how to do chores right is also important to the Acostas. When they grow up, they’ll be able to take care of their own home and possessions and be more independent, Marci Acosta said.

Liz Ott turns first to her mom when she needs support or advice, then to a small network of friends who have kids of similar age.

Both families say they have work-life balance. About a third of U.S. adults say that’s a struggle, a substantial increase from the one-fourth who said that in 2020.

Acosta said she was a bit worried by the uptick in divorce cases she saw her employer handle the last few years. “But somehow, my husband and I managed (the pandemic) very well. I think we became closer.”

Physical, mental health

Access to care concerned many Americans during the pandemic. The survey found most families got the care they needed for physical maladies in 2021 and 2022, although somewhat fewer said they accessed needed mental health care.

Galena Rhoades, research professor at the University of Denver and executive director of Thriving Families, said that still leaves a lot of families unable to get help “around support for their relationships, histories of trauma, mental health, and in general health care — especially those with lower income levels.”

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The survey found access was easier for those with higher incomes or who were white, compared to those who are low-income, Black or Hispanic. 

Karpowitz wonders what the next few years will bring.

“I think it feels like a transition year as we move out of the pandemic and as new concerns take over. We certainly do see American families grappling with new economic challenges, trying to manage work and home life in ways that are different than what they did during the pandemic, and those are added stresses and challenges,” Karpowitz said.

That’s an American family story for future surveys.

Angel Acosta, 13, left holds his younger brother, Ares Acosta, 5, while their father Andy Acosta stands in the back next to his wife, Marci Acosta, as the family poses for a photo in West Valley City on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2022. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News
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