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Brookings Institution

WASHINGTON — While America remains divided on issues of politics and culture, one thing unites them: the importance of family.

A majority of Americans say their identity within their family is very or extremely important — more than those who say the same about their religion, race or political party, according to the 2018 American Family Survey, released this week by the Deseret News.

Yet even under this unifying tent, Americans diverge when it comes to the best path to building a family and other issues of national import, according to a panel of scholars who convened Friday at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., to discuss the survey and its findings.

Most striking to the panelists were revelations about the connection between marriage and partisanship, the significance of race as a measure of personal identity, and the gap between how women and men define sexual harassment.

Panelist Brad Wilcox, director of The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, noted the survey found “a real marriage gap” when it comes to support of President Donald Trump. “What it tells us is that we focus a lot on things like education and gender in looking into the Trump phenomenon, but the marriage gap is about as large as the gender and education gap," he said.

Wilcox also noted that Republicans are 17 percent more likely than Democrats to be married, they’re less likely to report their marriage is in trouble, and more likely to say that marriage is an essential part of a fulfilling life.

“There is a partisan divide when it comes to marriage in America, and I wish this were not the case,” he said.

The survey revealed an undercurrent of tribalism in the respondents’ assessment of their own marriage as compared to the marriage of others. “People consistently say that their own marriage is a happy marriage, but everyone else’s is in trouble,” said Doug Wilks, editor of the Deseret News, in opening remarks.

But it makes clear that marriage remains important to Americans across demographic lines. Few people said that marriage is old-fashioned or out-of-date, and large majorities said it's important to be married or in a committed relationship before having children.

"Marriage is something that people aspire to and hope to experience themselves and want to hold onto once they enter a marriage," said panelist Marcia Carlson, a sociology professor and director of the Center for Demography and Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

And Carlson noted the survey's finding that both higher incomes and college degrees are associated with being married. “This is interesting and important, and points to a double advantage” for children whose parents are married.

Race and identity

Randall Akee, the David M. Rubenstein Fellow in economic studies at Brookings and an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he was intrigued by the responses about personal identity.

Large majorities across all demographic lines said that being married and being a parent is important to their personal identity.

When it comes to race, however, few white respondents said that their race was part of their identity, whereas 46 percent of blacks report that race is important to their identity, and similarly, 18 percent of Hispanics.

“I found that fascinating,” Akee said, adding that he would be interested in learning if race as a component of identity is internal, or imposed by society, and suggesting that this might be a future area of inquiry for the American Family Survey.

Akee also noted racial differences that were evident when respondents were asked about stressful family events that had occurred within the past year. “What they find here is incredibly striking,” Akee said. “For white families, 16 percent had had an immediate family member die; for black families, it’s much higher, 25 percent,” he said.

Similarly, 8 percent of white respondents said they had experienced a layoff or job loss in their family; for blacks and Hispanics, the number who had experienced this was 12 percent and 11 percent, respectively. These are stark differences that deserve scrutiny by policymakers, Akee said.

“This should double our efforts for understanding why that is the case,” he said.

While the panelists were generally in agreement, Carlson, the University of Wisconsin sociologist, said she interpreted the results differently from Wilcox when it comes to partisanship and marriage.

Partisanship isn’t as enduring as it has been in previous generations, Carlson said, and economic factors have a big effect on who gets married. “The people who are getting married are the ones who can make that happen. It’s not the difference in what you say about marriage, but your ability to get there. Not that there isn’t a partisan difference, but to me, that doesn’t seem to be driving it,” she said.

Pursuit of an ideal

One area of pronounced partisan difference surfaced when respondents were asked about the ideal steps to building a family. But in this case, the difference was only found among white Democrats.

Black Democrats, like white Republicans, believe that sex, marriage and cohabitation should occur at roughly the same time, with children coming later, even if their actual practice doesn’t always live up to that ideal.

White Democrats, however, are more likely to say that people should have sex, then live together, then get married before having children, and their ideal largely matches their practice.

Moderator Richard V. Reeves, a senior fellow at Brookings and co-director of the Center on Children and Families, asked the panel whether the ideal professed by Republicans and black Democrats is outdated, or if society should take action to enable more people to achieve that ideal.

“Should we shatter the illusion, or should we try to help people live up to the ideal?” Reeves asked.

Wilcox said Americans expect their politicians to abide by ideals, even as they recognize that in the real world, this often doesn’t happen.

Similarly, “Relationships are messy, families are messy, marriages are messy … we all know this and we’ve all experienced it in some way or another, but the question is, do we want to lift up the messiness as our aspiration, or do we want to try to continue to try to figure out ways of helping ordinary Americans, helping our kids realize the path to a strong and stable family life?”

The steps, Wilcox said, are clear. “Young adults who at least get a high school degree and then work full time and then marry before having kids are much more likely to avoid poverty and much more likely to realize the upper or middle class lifestyle and have a stable family.”

America needs to make this path more accessible, to “calibrate into the culture and public policy ways to make that path possible,” he said.

Finally, in response to a question from the audience, the panelists discussed the survey’s findings that women and men often differ sharply on what they consider to be sexual harassment, and that women are significantly more likely than men to report having been subjected to inappropriate behavior or words.

Carlson said she expects that gender differences in what constitutes harassment will become more synchronous over time. “We’re in a time of real change,” she said.

But what isn’t changing is a fundamental affection for the family, which was found on issues as diverse as immigration, where 82 percent of respondents said detained parents and children should not be separated, to marriage, which most respondents believe is important to the well-being of children.

“The ongoing value and importance of marriage really comes out in this study,” Carlson said.

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The American Family Survey is an annual, nationally representative study of 3,000 Americans for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University and conducted by YouGov. This year's poll was conducted in August.

The Deseret News launched the survey four years ago because of the need for a reliable measure of what is happening to the American family, Wilks, the newspaper’s editor, said at the forum. Being "a watchdog for the American family" is a unique role that the Deseret News can play, he said.