WASHINGTON — Americans are more pessimistic about family life and marriage than they should be. They believe divorce, teen pregnancy and births outside of marriage are becoming more common, though the opposite is true, according to the newly released American Family Survey.

Misunderstanding the trends in family life has a potential dark side that could misinform decision-making and stall individual effort to craft a better life, according to experts who met in Washington, D.C., Friday to discuss the survey, a joint project of the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

“Capitalism is profoundly future-oriented. The biggest enemy of capitalism is not socialism, it’s pessimism, because if people stop believing in the predictability of a better future, they will stop doing the things that will deliver that better future,” said Richard Reeves, senior fellow at Brookings Institution who co-directs the Center on Children and Families.

Bad news can motivate people to strive to fix things, which is good, he said. But people who don’t see others thrive and don’t believe that doing well is possible may quit striving, asking why anyone would risk moving for a new job or go to college or start a new business.

If you think half of marriages fail, do you marry? he asked.

“Capitalism depends fundamentally on the idea that the future will be better” because of personal effort, he said. “That’s why you invest and take risks.”

The nationally representative survey of 3,000 American adults has now tracked trends in marriage and family life for five years, consistently asking questions about attitudes and activities, while also looking at relevant new issues with each iteration. The 2019 version focused on paid family leave. It measured support for paid leave, ideas about what it should include and asked how the public feels about proposals being considered by Congress.

“We began with a simple but important premise and principle,” Doug Wilks, Deseret News editor, said in describing how the survey came about in 2015. “Namely, that the family is an essential unit of society and vital to its sustainability, growth and success. We wanted to measure and track family life, in all its many forms.”

The survey found that while respondents think their own marriages and families are stable or getting stronger, Americans aren’t as confident of marriage and family life in general, though there’s been a slight decline in pessimism since the survey began, according to Christopher F. Karpowitz, who co-wrote the report and co-directs the center with Jeremy C. Pope, a fellow associate professor at BYU.

Asked about trends in family life, Americans got most of it wrong, said Karpowitz, who noted that Republicans were more likely to guess them wrong, compared to Democrats. Overall, the vast majority thinks divorce rates are increasing, instead of decreasing. They think more teens are having sex, that the teen pregnancy rate is climbing and that there are more births overall outside of marriage. The opposite is true for all of those. Those surveyed were far more likely to be correct that the fertility rate and marriage rate are decreasing and that the share of single-parent households is increasing. 

Karpowitz said even that understanding of trends speaks to a dimmed view of family life. Those are “answers where arguably the most pessimistic responses are the correct answer, so it seems to Jeremy (Pope) and me that part of what we see is a pessimism about family and family life even when that pessimism is not warranted.”

A marriage gap?

The survey found what W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at University of Virginia and scholar at both the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, characterizes as a marriage divide: “A majority of college-educated Americans, a majority of more affluent Americans, a majority of Republicans and a majority of more religious Americans are married in the United States,” compared to those who don’t fit those categories, he said.

The groups who are primarily married are also more likely to say they are “completely satisfied with life.” he noted.

Wilcox said it’s understood how the marriage divide is linked to questions of economic inequality and opportunity for kids, but he thinks the marriage divide is linked to happiness, too. “What this new survey and this new data set suggests is they are perhaps doing better in life because they are also more likely to be married,” he said, referring to a “family renaissance.”

The paradox is those same people are more pessimistic about the family in general, said Wilcox. He speculated that some Americans use their sense of concern and pessimism as an impetus to invest more in making their own marriages and family life healthy.

Agreeing on leave 

Family leave impacts a lot of people: Karpowitz said the survey found about 1 in 5 people had taken at least a week of leave related to care in the past five years, though some described situations not considered in the survey, like time after a death in the family to regroup. 

Wilks asked in his introductory remarks if people care as much about helping their aging parents as about leave to take care of the babies being born. The survey suggests the answer is no.

Democrats are more likely to support paid leave for a lot of caregiving circumstances.

Paid parental leave is one area where Republicans and Democrats seem to agree in principle, though there is large variation in the details. Both parties favor parental leave, though support for paternity leave is smaller than for maternity leave.

Americans want mothers to take time off with their babies, said Marcy Carlson, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Demography and Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A not-insignificant number of Republicans join Democrats in wanting leave for fathers, too. 

But there’s no clear consensus anywhere on how to pay for it. “And if you value time with children, you have to pay for it,” Carlson said.

Suggestions on how long paid leave should last varied, but most agreed new mothers need more time than new fathers.

Though people take leave at similar rates, regardless of their demographics, there are huge differences in their experiences with leave, Karpowitz said. Those at lowest income levels were far less likely to receive pay during leave and if they did, it was at a lower percentage than those in higher income brackets received. They were also more likely to face obstacles getting back to the jobs they left. For some with the least resources, leave took on literal meaning: “They were much more likely to leave the workforce entirely than those at the higher end of the income.”

Leave was also paid for differently by those who have used it. Wealthier wage earners got a higher percentage paid for by their employers, while lower wage earners were more apt to cobble leave together with help from family and friends. 

Aparna Mathur,  a scholar of economic policy at the American Enterprise Institute, said the issue of funding leave is not clearly divided on party lines, though it’s clear more Republicans would like to see the free market provide the pressure, while Democrats would be okay with using force and mandating they pay.

None of the measures now before Congress drew clear support in the survey. The survey suggests employers should pay, but whether with government-supported incentives or through a payroll tax or other mechanism isn’t clear. 

But Mathur said she’s optimistic about getting some form of paid family leave, because it’s coming together as a fundamental need that families have. The ideological divide as she sees it is how to move forward.

The entire survey is available for download.