SALT LAKE CITY — Politicians from both parties love to talk about families. So do newscasters. And advertisers. And all your friends online.
So why are so many Americans so wrong about many issues affecting family life?
Nearly 9 in 10 U.S. adults are unaware that the divorce rate is dropping. More than three-quarters incorrectly assume that more teens are having sex today than 10 years ago. Sixty-one percent don’t know that fewer babies are born out of wedlock.
The problem is Americans are too pessimistic, according to the fifth annual American Family Survey, a nationally representative survey conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. Americans are only right about the direction of family related trends when things are going wrong.
“Americans have a more accurate perception of fertility rates, marriage rates and single-parent homes. ... But note that, in each of these cases, the more pessimistic answer happens to be correct (though, of course, this depends in part on one’s perspective and values),” researchers reported.
In general, when it comes to family life, “people tend to think that things are worse than they actually are,” said Jeremy Pope, co-director of the center and co-author of the survey.
That’s likely because few community leaders are incentivized to offer a clear picture of family related trends, said experts on religion, politics and culture. Politicians, pastors and others who regularly discuss family life typically benefit more from anxiety than optimism.
“Leaders often motivate folks to the voting booth or to the confessional or to the altar rail through fear,” said Marie Griffith, who directs the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. “They can also motivate people with hope and a vision of what can be ... but in order for people to want that and work for it, they often need to be afraid of where we’re going if we don’t change course.”
For the most part, misperceptions about family patterns are widespread, the American Family Survey showed.
“(Lack of awareness) doesn’t vary much by income. It doesn’t vary a ton by race. It doesn’t vary by education,” Pope said. “These are myths that are out there in the public.”
However, there is significant variation by political party. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to guess wrong about the direction of trend lines related to divorce, teen sex, teen pregnancies and births outside of marriage, the four areas of family life that U.S. adults, in general, are most confused about.
For example, 72% of Republicans wrongly believe the percentage of teen girls ages 15 to 19 who have given birth has increased or stayed about the same over the past 10 years, compared to 51% of Democrats, the survey reported.
White evangelical Protestants also stand out for their poor performance on some of the trend-related questions. While members of most faith groups were wrong about as often as an average U.S. adult, white evangelicals were more likely to hold incorrect assumptions about rates of teen pregnancy, births outside of marriage and teen sex.
Seventy-two percent of white evangelical Protestants wrongly guessed the percentage of children born outside of marriage was increasing, compared to 63% of Catholics and white mainline Protestants, and 61% of all U.S. adults, according to the American Family Survey.
These outliers seem to support Griffith’s point about pastors and politicians. Republican and evangelical leaders regularly talk about threats to family life, and their supporters are taking that message to heart.
“Negative stories resonate with people,” Griffith said. “I hate to sound so cynical, but they’re more effective at keeping people passionate about politics or their faith.”
Family and politics
To be fair, politicians and faith leaders are far from the only people stoking family related fears. Negative storylines typically sell better than positive ones, so Americans hear a lot about what’s going wrong, said Michelle Janning, a sociologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
“If I’m writing a show, the bottom line is I want to have viewers, and what gets views is drama, trauma and compelling storylines,” she said about pop culture representations of family life.
She’s recognized a similar tendency in her own profession.
“It’s part of our nature, our inclination as sociologists to focus on what’s wrong with society and what we can do to make it better. Journalists might be similar,” Janning said.
In the political sphere, leaders from both parties emphasize negative trends so they can then talk about what they can do to help, said Laurel Elder, co-author of “The Politics of Parenthood: Causes and Consequences of the Politicization and Polarization of the American Family.” They use the language of family life to explain their policy goals, playing off of people’s natural passion for the subject.
“Republicans say things like we’re going to offer tax cuts because it’s going to help you strengthen your families. Democrats argue that strengthening social security is a family value,” she said. “All politicians very much seem aware that this is a useful way to frame issues to get the attention of voters.”
A New York Times analysis of speeches offered at the 2012 Republican and Democratic national conventions showed that “families” were mentioned more often than the economy, taxes, God or the American dream.
In 2016, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump wove messages to families into their convention speeches. Clinton spoke about immigration policies and gun violence tearing families apart. Trump used similar language to call for a border wall and praise gun ownership.
“I ... will protect the right of all Americans to keep their families safe,” he said.
Family life hasn’t always played such a prominent role in politics, according to Elder, who is a professor of political science at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. It emerged as a major talking point in the late 1970s, as Americans struggled to accept shifting social and professional norms.
“There was a real change in family life in America” as more women entered the work force and office jobs grew more demanding, she said. “There was also anxiety about changes in family structure” stemming from a surge in divorce and people having kids outside of marriage.
Around the same time, evangelical Christians emerged as a key Republican constituency and amplified concerns about declining morality. Republican leaders and conservative Christian pastors both shared the message that things like feminism, homosexuality and divorce were destroying the American family, Griffith said.
To a certain extent, that anxiety persists today, despite some positive, family related trends, like the falling divorce rate, experts said.
“We’re living in unsettled times,” Janning said. “There’s this idea that if we had solid family circumstances, the rest of the world would fall in order.”
Pope wasn’t surprised that the American Family Survey found far-reaching confusion. Few Americans seek out trend data on their own and, as other researchers pointed out, political speeches, sermons, TV shows and advertisements are often misleading.
“It’s a little much to expect the public to think like a social scientist does, or a really informed policymaker, and figure out ... the actual social trends,” Pope said.
However, these survey results and broader misconceptions about the issues affecting American families are still a cause for concern, Janning said.
“Are we creating a fear of unlikely things by spreading news about things we don’t know everything about? Yes, I worry about that,” she said.
For example, false assumptions about how many teens are having sex or getting pregnant might lead parents to be overly strict with their kids. Young adults might avoid committing to a serious relationship if they’re worried about divorce.
When we’re obsessing over potential problems, “we might be afraid for our kids to walk alone from home to school or afraid to interact with people who seem different than us,” Janning said.
On a more subtle level, failing to recognize positive developments related to teen pregnancy or divorce might keep Americans stuck in the past and distract from more pressing family related concerns.
“There’s been a disconnect for a long time between the issues (politicians) are talking about and what surveys show are the biggest concerns for actual families today,” like affordable day care, paid family leave and work-life balance, Elder said.
It’s unlikely that politicians will take the lead in correcting flawed, family related assumptions, Elder said. There aren’t obvious political benefits to highlighting a declining divorce rate or less teen sex.
The same goes for pastors, as Griffith noted. Conservative faith leaders won’t stop preaching against sex before marriage or births out of wedlock simply because these acts are becoming less common.
Even if politicians, newscasters, sociologists and pastors all agreed to help clear up family related confusion, some Americans likely still wouldn’t listen, Pope said. The American Family Survey showed that people who are going through crises at home often assume many of their neighbors are, too.
“One thing we discovered is if you do have negative feelings about your own family, you also tend to be someone who gets more of those questions incorrect. In other words, you see more breakdown in society, if you are struggling with your own family,” he said.