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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Jay and Marisa Frost at home with two of their kids, Benny and Sofia, on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016.

Editors note: The American Family Survey is an annual, nationwide poll from the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. It studies how Americans think about marriage and parenting, their family lives, and their opinions about the most important issues affecting families today. Read more about the surveys findings at DeseretNews.com/american-family-survey.

The health insurance statements arrived in a thick package the size of half a phone book.

Marisa and Jay Frost’s son Josh, then 18, had lost control of his longboard and tumbled onto the pavement, his head hitting repeatedly on the asphalt as he slid down a hill. He nearly died.

That was a year ago. Though Josh is doing pretty well now, his parents figure they’re about five years from regaining their financial footing after his hospitalization and rehabilitation.

"I cannot remember the total amount," Marisa Frost says now of the hospital bill. "It really stresses us out. Our insurance paid a large portion of the bill, which was easily more than six figures. Between the hospital bills and me being on leave without pay, it did take my breath away."

Over the course of their marriage, Jay and Marisa Frost had tried to cover all their financial bases, from making sure they both had solid jobs to purchasing long-term-care insurance in case one of them became disabled. They were careful with their money so they didn't struggle terribly to make ends meet as they raised their three kids. But they were still blindsided by the cost of Josh’s medical bills.

Money is very much on the mind of the average American family, even without such a calamity. The newly released 2016 American Family Survey suggests that despite reports the economy has recovered postrecession, many are ill-prepared should even fairly small things go wrong. Their financial footing is tenuous.

Four in 10 Americans say their savings would cover less than a month's expenses, while a similar number said they experienced some degree of financial crisis in the last year. When they were asked to prioritize a list of top concerns facing families, economic issues got more attention in the 2016 survey than they did during the 2015 survey, including concerns about the cost of raising kids, worries about a lack of good jobs and work stress on parents.

The findings also reinforce research showing that family structure matters to financial and family stability, with marriage generally associated with greater stability than cohabitation.

The survey, now in its second year, was conducted in late July by YouGov for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. It includes responses from 3,000 American adults on topics ranging from family economics to how families actually live day to day and what they value. The survey also captures public sentiment on a number of policy issues that have been key to the looming presidential election.

Experts interviewed about the findings pointed to an apparent lingering belief that the economic recovery isn't robust, or is souring a bit, expressing some surprise at the degree to which economic concerns stood out in the findings.

“I think the psychological impact of the great recession is much bigger and probably more enduring than many people have recognized,” said Richard Reeves, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings Institution, who consulted on the survey.

Slippery financial footing

The survey found that personal experience is behind the pessimism some respondents have about their finances. On average, 40 percent of Americans said they’ve faced at least one of six specific cash-flow challenges over the past year. For example, just over 20 percent said they didn't pay the full amount of something important like rent or mortgage, 13 percent had gone hungry and 14.5 percent failed to see a doctor when they were ill because they felt they couldn’t afford it. Nearly 20 percent reported borrowing from loved ones.

Smaller numbers said they moved in with family or friends or stayed in shelters.

Such hardships were more common among respondents who cohabit with a partner or are in a relationship, compared to people who are married or are single — except single mothers. Single mothers are particularly vulnerable, with two-thirds of them reporting they had endured at least one of the six challenges during the past year, according to the study.

Among people with children living at home, nearly half — 46 percent — experienced one of these challenges, compared to 34 percent of those without children at home.

“Families are dealing with a level of economic stress that is real and challenging,” said Christopher F. Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and an author on the report.

In addition, a good portion of those surveyed said if they had an emergency and were forced to live on what they’ve set aside, they don’t have enough savings to last a month. Just one-fourth could cover expenses for six months if they had to. Even in the highest income bracket, above $100,000, where nearly half had six months’ expenses in savings, 15 percent said they wouldn’t be able to last more than a month. The number is four times higher — 60 percent — for those with incomes below $30,000.

The report also found that people with the fewest savings appeared to be least connected socially with their neighbors.

The low savings rate in America stood out during the great recession, said Leonard M. Lopoo, professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University, who noted savings are “sometimes actually negative,” even high into the income distribution. “When you have that little cushion, that little buffer, small changes can make huge differences in the lives of people.”

Economic distress wears a human face and may bestow a long-lasting burden. Sara McLanahan, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and an adviser on the survey, has long studied fragile families and their impact on children. She said economic distress makes it hard to parent, and children suffer as a result. Functional magnetic resonance imaging shows the impact of money worries on the part of the brain where decisions are made. Such stress contributes to a visible "brain overload" in parents, she said.

Generational priorities may underpin the survey's "fairly significant shift from cultural items to economic issues" in the prioritization of family challenges, said Samuel Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence, who also consulted on the survey.

In both 2015 and 2016, respondents were asked to choose three of 12 conditions that were of greatest concern to families. They fell into three categories: economics, culture and family stability. The top concern — that parents aren't teaching or disciplining their children enough — was selected by more than half of those surveyed, similar to 2015.

But the number who selected each economic concern increased between 2 to 6 percentage points over the year, Sturgeon's analysis shows, while the number choosing cultural factors decreased in most cases between 2 and 7 points over 2015. For example, the number concerned about sexual permissiveness dropped 7 points and the number worried about drugs and alcohol fell by 5 points. Meanwhile, the number selecting concerns about the cost of raising a family increased 6 points and those choosing high work demands and stress on parents was up 5 points.

While the survey doesn't explain what caused the shift from 2015 to 2016, Sturgeon said it's possible "the economy maybe really has started to slow a little bit or remain pretty soft."

The shift is consistent across age groups, he said, but it's most notable among the younger adult demographic. "I think personally that young people are kind of done with the culture wars," he said. "Millennials don't feel a need to fight them. ... The economy is more relevant."

Among those ages 18 to 29, the number selecting high work and stress demands on parents increased 10 percent; he believes there is also concern about a lack of good jobs.

Family structure matters

Single mothers face financial crises more often than other families, according to the survey. In fact, more than 6 in 10 single mothers have incomes below $30,000 per year. Fewer than a third of single mothers are mid-income, and only 10 percent earn a high income. The report noted that women, in general, face economic crises more than men, and that cohabitors and other people who are unmarried but in a relationship are also more likely to have been financially challenged in the last year.

The impact of these challenges can stretch into the next generation. People who had a stable family life growing up — measured by whether their mother was continuously married to the same person throughout their childhood — were less likely to say they experienced an economic crisis in the last 12 months. They were also more likely to be married today and less likely to say their relationship is in trouble.

Marisa and Jay Frost come from very different backgrounds, and that influenced how each approached the reality of last year’s calamity. Marisa arrived in the United States in the mid-1990s, a refugee who at age 8 escaped the civil war in Africa with her mother and siblings. She is and probably always will be a worrier, she admits.

Jay jokes that he never worried about anything. He’s the first in his family to go to college and the first to embrace religion. “Our goals and values are the same,” he said of his wife. When things got really bad, they tackled them together. And they have expectations for their kids, who besides Josh include Sofia, 18, and Benny, 7.

After Josh’s crash, they took stock of both their finances and their lives. Jay thought about whether he wanted to do the same job — he’s a social worker — for another quarter century. Now, as they work full time and chip away at their financial recovery and save for the future, they are both studying in BYU’s MBA program on the Salt Lake campus.

Daughter Sofia is working and saving money to pay for college in the near future. Josh, who just turned 20, works, too.

To them, there’s nothing theoretical about the need for a financial safety net or the economic dangers that can appear unexpectedly.

Who do you call?

The Frosts were in the process of moving when Josh was injured. Friends, including some from their neighborhood LDS Church ward where Jay Frost had served as bishop, finished packing, moving and unpacking them.

Friends also showed up at the hospital to keep the family company and pray for Josh. They brought so much food that Marisa wondered where they'd put it all. One of her co-workers took their daughter, Sofia, shopping for back-to-school clothes — something that, at that point, was not even on Marisa or Jay's radar.

That kind of support may not be the norm today. The survey found that people rely on their social connections to different degrees when they have some kind of need — say with child care or help getting to an appointment or advice about a relationship. But fewer than 10 percent rely on their religious community or their neighbors for such things, and the majority say they rely on themselves. When it comes to needing financial help, 73 percent say they rely on themselves.

The survey specifically asked where, besides from their family, people would seek help in different situations, listing neighbors, friends, co-workers, community organizations and religious organizations. But experts and individuals interviewed about the survey said the role of family can’t be overlooked when dealing with crisis — especially for those who come from stable, financially healthy families.

It’s often easier for those in higher-income households to avoid or recover from crisis because they have better options to ask for help, said Lopoo. “It may be the case that if you’re in a middle-income family and are having a difficult time, you have family to rely on — parents, siblings or other relatives who are also middle-class and support one another. One of the vulnerabilities of a low-income family is you find yourself in a situation and it’s not a matter of (family) not wanting to help, it’s just the resources are not there.”

W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, who consulted on the survey, agrees, adding it’s not just in times of crisis.

I think it’s the case, too, they are more likely to get financial support from their parents as they move into family life and middle age as well," he said.

"There’s a kind of dynamic in play where coming from a stable family both improves your own individual financial performance and the ability to flourish in today’s labor market. It also means as you face pressure to get a down payment for your home or cover your kids’ tuition or deal with that temporary financial emergency, you’re more likely to have a family that can help support you financially."

The survey found differences by age and by income in where folks turn for help with challenges. Almost a third of those over age 65 said they would not look for help outside of their families; 18 percent of those under 30 said the same. The survey also found that those in the lowest income group were least likely to ask others for help, as were those who attended church least regularly.

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