WASHINGTON (CNS) — Americans hold a variety of diverse opinions on a number of political issues. Sometimes, they veer to opposite ends of the political spectrum. But the one thing that not only bridges those gaps but brings them closer together is parenthood.
That is one of the findings of the American Family Survey, whose results were released Nov. 17.
The study, sponsored by the study by the Deseret News in Salt Lake City and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy in Provo, Utah, surveyed Americans’ attitudes about marriage and family, their parenting and marriage practices, their political attitudes about family-related policies and their perceptions of the most important problems facing families today.
“Even though there are differences in the way the left and the right perceive this, there is a lot of common ground,” said Jeremy Pope, the Provo center’s co-director, in a Nov. 16 telephone interview with Catholic News Service. “Liberals, just like conservatives, believe families are important. They’re important for protecting children.”
He added, “If you’re liberal, you’re less likely to be married and less likely to have children. But once you do have those things,” Pope noted, “the typical lived experience … is not very different.”
“For most people, the economic issues are pretty salient,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, an associate sociology professor at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, which he says examines the strength of marriage in America and how it affects children as well as trends that strengthen and undercut marriage.
“Americans across the spectrum are concerned about navigating pop culture, social technologies with their children. This is playing out in Colorado and elsewhere,” Wilcox said; the Colorado case has to do with the widespread discovery of “sexting” — sexually explicit text messages — sent by students at one high school. “It’s kind of regardless of how affluent or well educated they (parents) are, on how electronics and social media can affect their kids, and they’re struggling how to manage those things.”
“Reading through the various responses, I’d say there was quite a child-centric sentiment to the pro-marriage survey, said Richard Reeves, a Brookings Institution fellow who, like Wilcox, served as an adviser during the preparation of survey questions. “It’s a very pro-marriage survey.”
One of the answers sought from the survey, Reeves told CNS, was: “Is it important to children (for parents) to be married? Where there’s quite a bit of unity across age (groups), marriage is important to the extent that is supports stable parenting.”
That’s where public policy implications kick in, Reeves said. “It’s a public policy issue to get into this space to lead the investment in parenting,” he noted. In a similar fashion, he added, “it’s quite clear that people are feeling a degree of economic stability is important to a marriage. There’s a relationship between marital stability and economic stability.”
“While liberals and conservatives view the social meaning of marriage differently and enter into marriage at different rates, the way liberals and conservatives actually experience marriage is quite similar,” the study said.
The most important problem they saw in family life out of 12 choices offered was parents not teaching or disciplining their children sufficiently, with 53 percent choosing it as one of the three biggest problems. That was nearly twice the response compared to the next biggest problem: the widespread availability and use of drugs and alcohol, at 27 percent. Bunched closely behind were the cost of raising a family (26 percent), more children growing up in single-parent homes (25 percent), decline in religious faith and church attendance (23 percent), and high work demands and stress on parents and difficulty finding quality time with family in the digital age (21 percent each).
YouGov, an international Internet-based market research firm, conducted the survey in August of 3,099 respondents, whittling it down to an even 3,000 to more closely match U.S. demographics. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
Pope, of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, gave examples of how the needle moves toward an ideological middle.
“It is the case that Republicans and conservatives were less enthusiastic about pro-marriage tax credits, or food stamps, but they weren’t really negative, just more neutral,” he said.
“If you’re a conservative Republican, you prefer tax fairness to treating everybody fairly. But if you’re a conservative Republican who’s had kids, you want special tax relief for families. People on the left with kids, they tend to strongly favor tax relief for kids, and that kind of disappears for people on the left who don’t have children.”
Anyone concerned about the future of marriage could take heart in one finding. “Young people emphasize commitment over marital status, but they are not rejecting marriage as an obsolete practice or status,” the study’s overview said.
A man-bites-dog element in the survey results was unveiled on the subject of family leave. “If anything,” the study said, “respondents without children at home tended to advocate for longer unpaid leave than those with children.”
Reeves told CNS he found one “strong religious divide” in that 28 percent of couples said they prayed together outside of meals. “It’s not (saying) grace, that’s a habitual thing,” he added. On the flip side, 50 percent of couples said they did not pray together at all.
“I thought that was something that exposes religious conservatives as a supporter of marriage. I’d find that quite comforting that there’s a strong spiritual dimension to marriage,” Reeves said.