All Americans should be alarmed by the results of a new national survey that shows Americans losing interest in the values that have shaped the national character for generations.

Surveys are snapshots in time. While they may illuminate trends and reveal problems, they don’t necessarily indicate permanent changes. The pandemic, inflation, economic troubles, crime, political polarization and other factors may color how people think and feel at the moment. 

But the survey published this week by The Wall Street Journal and NORC at the University of Chicago reveals attitudes that could undo civil society if not confronted.

It found only 38% of respondents agreeing that patriotism is very important to them. Only 39% said religion was very important. Just 25 years ago, a similar poll found 70% and 62% in those respective categories.

The results were most concerning among young adults. Only 23% of those under 30 said patriotism was important, with only 23% of that group saying having children was very important (the result among all age groups was 30%).

Also concerning, the respondents who said tolerance for others was very important fell from 80% in 2019 to 58% in 2023.

The only category to grow in importance over time was accumulating money, deemed very important by 43%.

Americans need to be reminded why traditional values are not only important, but vital, to the nation’s success. Just last week, author, innovator and educator Ian Rowe told the Deseret News of the four “pillars” he said help communities lift children to success as adults, regardless of the disadvantages into which they might have been born. 

Chief among these is family — not the one into which they were born, but the one they form as adults. Rowe said it’s vital “that we teach young people that there are different rewards or consequences associated with different life decisions.”

People who overcome life’s obstacles and challenges have some sort of faith commitment, as part of a religious community devoted to principles, morals and tenets, he said. These anchor people in a compass that defines right and wrong. 

Education and entrepreneurship are the third and fourth pillars, with entrepreneurship being defined as the ability to be resilient through creativity, problem-solving and the ability to keep going when things go wrong.

But all of these build on the foundation of family and a strong moral compass.

Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have identified the success sequence as a three-step process: Complete at least high school as a minimum, work full time, and get married before having children. 

Unfortunately, about 40% of births in America now take place outside of marriage. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that, as of 2019, about 30% of sin­gle par­ents live in pover­ty, compared to only 6% of mar­ried cou­ples. Children in poverty tend to have poorer outcomes in a number of areas, from education to physical and mental health.  

New York Times columnist and author Arthur Brooks, an expert on the science of happiness, differentiates between enjoyment, which often can be hollow, and lasting happiness. The irony, he said, is that having children can be difficult and challenging, but it will lead to a more lasting sense of purpose and happiness.

“So today, when people say, well, you’ll be happier if you don’t have kids, what they’re saying is, you’ll have more enjoyment if you don’t have kids. The problem is the trade-off. You’ll have more enjoyment; you’ll probably have less meaning and purpose. And so net-net, that’s actually not good for you on the happiness scale.”

As for hard work, Brooks said his research shows the important thing is finding a way to help other people, not necessarily to make a lot of money. People, he said, “need to be needed. That’s the basis of dignity.” 

Unfortunately, he said, “when people are discouraged from forming families, discouraged from serving other people in their communities, discouraged from participating in the formal workforce, they don’t feel like they’re creating value. And that’s what actually leads to despair.”

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And that is why the newly released survey results are so troubling. 

It’s true that a variety of factors, from current economic conditions to the way politics has co-opted terms such as “patriotism” and “religious” to mean different things, may be skewing how people respond to questions. Also, the survey made it clear that many Americans are pessimistic about the economy and the notion that their children might grow up to live under worse conditions than they do. 

If there is a light of hope in the survey, it is in the percentages who listed items as “somewhat important” in their lives. Combine them with those who list items as “very important” and you find 73% believing in patriotism, 65% believing in God, 60% believing that religion is important and 65% believing in having children, at least somewhat.

But then, those who believe money is at least somewhat important total 90%. Clearly, Americans need help to remember what really matters. 

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