Despite diverging ideological views, liberals and conservatives have largely similar family lives, finds poll

American Family Survey, a new nationwide survey of family-related attitudes, values and experiences, releases first findings

Nov 17, 2015, 00:01 ET from The Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY and PROVO, Utah, Nov. 17, 2015 /PRNewswire/ -- The results of a new national poll released today contribute fresh insight to ongoing research and debates on American family life. The American Family Survey, a nationwide study by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and conducted by YouGov, 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.

The American Family Survey is a new poll that studies the changing American family through the twin lenses of political science and sociology. One of the survey's more surprising findings is that although liberals and conservatives have markedly different ideological attitudes about family and marriage, their lived family experiences are almost exactly the same. It also found that while most Americans say their own marriages and families are strong, they rate the strength of marriages and families generally much lower.

"These data should make everyone who cares about the family and family policy sit up and take notice – whether they are on the political left, the right or in the center," said Jeremy C. Pope, associate professor of political science at BYU and co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "Knowing how the public views marriage and family is an important step in diagnosing problems and identifying potential solutions where everyone can agree."

"The provocative findings of this poll come at a time when family life is shifting and questions about family are widely debated," said Allison Pond, Editor of the Deseret News National Edition and a former Pew Research Center staffer. "The rich data in this study will add timely context to ongoing academic and political conversations about the changing American family."

The poll asked questions on a range of topics including the diversity of modern family arrangements, the desirability and value of marriage as a social institution, appropriate parenting practices, the effect of economic and financial factors on American families and the role government policy should play in supporting families. Some of the findings of the poll, which included 3,000 responses from Americans across racial, religious, gender and age groups, include:

  • Americans view their own marriages as relatively healthy – 92% of married respondents say their marriage is the same or stronger than two years earlier – but they are more pessimistic about marriage generally, with 83% saying marriages generally are the same or weaker in the last two years.
  • Americans continue to view marriage as important to society. 62% of respondents agreed that "marriage is needed to create strong families," 60% agreed that "marriage makes families and kids better off financially," and 52% of respondents agreed that "society is better off when more people are married." Conversely, nearly two-thirds of respondents disagreed with the notion that marriage is "more of a burden than a benefit," and 71% pushed back against the notion that marriage is "old fashioned and out of date."
  • There are significant differences between liberals and conservatives when it comes to the social meaning of marriage. For example, fewer than half of liberals agree that society is better off when more people are married, compared to upwards of 80% of conservatives. Those on the right are also much more likely to see marriage as vital for the raising of children.
  • Despite these differences, there are no significant divides between liberals and conservatives in their personal marriage and family practices. They tend to engage in most of the same activities at the same rates, including how often they go out together, talk about finances, have an argument, or eat dinner as a family, among other practices. Conservatives are, however, more likely to pray as a couple or worship as a family.
  • There are also generational divides on the importance of marriage. Most young people tend to view commitment as more important than marital status, though they do not go so far as to agree that marriage is obsolete. People want to get married, though the age at which they believe marriage to be ideal depends to some degree on their personal circumstances.
  • Most Americans agree that it is important to have a steady job and be saving money or paying off debt before getting married. There is, however, a generational divide on the question of whether a couple should live together before getting married, with 21% of 18-19-year-olds saying it is "very important," compared with just 3% of those over 65.
  • Several questions show that Americans are especially supportive of the idea that marriage protects children. For example, 21% say divorce should be easier to obtain, but that number drops by half to 11% when people are asked whether it should be easier to obtain when children still live at home.
  • Americans are acutely aware of the economic burden of raising children. Only a third agree with the statement that the cost of raising children is affordable for most Americans.
  • Both liberals and conservatives view the family as being under attack, but view the sources of those attacks differently. Conservatives believe families face threats from cultural decay and changes in family structure and stability. Liberals favor economic factors such as inequality as the explanation for struggling families.
  • Americans across age groups express a surprising degree of agreement about parental discipline. 54% believe that it is sometimes necessary to spank children and 84% believe that parents should set boundaries for their children's media consumption. Americans across all demographic groups say one of the biggest problems facing families today is that parents fail to sufficiently teach and discipline their children.
  • There is some enthusiasm for government policies (e.g. food stamps or the child tax credit) designed to help families. Whether or not people have personally benefitted from the program is a key issue when it comes to supporting such programs.
  • When it comes to immigration, a plurality of Americans (47%) are neutral on whether policies should favor reuniting families over emphasizing job skills. Opposition to the importance of keeping families together is concentrated among Republicans (48%); half of Independents and Democrats are neutral. The public is evenly split on whether to deport immigrants with citizen children, with a third favoring, a third neutral and a third opposing. Again, there are large differences by party, as well as differences between those who have children at home and those who do not. There are also large differences by race, with whites less in favor of keeping families together than blacks or Hispanics.

The full survey report will be available at on November 17th. The Deseret News will also be releasing a content series exploring the study's implications in depth. The articles include:

  • A snapshot of marriage in America today. Americans express confidence in their own marriages yet pessimism about the institution of marriage generally; what explains that discrepancy?
  • A story exploring generational differences in attitudes toward marital and family practices and commitment. Why do millennials view marriage as the culmination of adulthood, rather than the beginning?
  • A profile of modern family life and childrearing. Liberals and conservatives disagree about the most important problems facing families today – yet their lived experiences and attitudes toward parenting and discipline are startlingly similar. Why?
  • An in-depth look at Americans' attitudes about the role of government in supporting families. From tax breaks for families to pre-kindergarten to immigration policy designed to keep families together, which policies do Americans support, and why?

The poll was designed by Paul Edwards, Editor of the Deseret News; Allison Pond, Editor of the Deseret News National Edition and a former Pew Research Center staffer; Christopher Karpowitz and Jeremy C. Pope of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University; and Sam Sturgeon, President of Demographic Intelligence. They consulted an advisory board which included Karlyn Bowman, Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; Sara McLanahan, Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton; Richard Reeves, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and former strategy advisor to the deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom; and W. Bradford Wilcox, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia and Director of the National Marriage Project.


The American Family Survey was fielded by the YouGov polling company from August 14, 2015 to August 26, 2015. YouGov interviewed 3,099 respondents, who were then matched down to a sample of 3,000 to produce the final dataset. The respondents were matched to a sampling frame on gender, age, race, education, marital status, party identification, ideology and political interest. The survey contained up to 143 possible questions, but individual respondents answered fewer because not all questions were applicable to all respondents. The calculated margin of error for the survey is 2.5%.


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The Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy (CSED) at Brigham Young University is a nonpartisan academic research center seeking to increase knowledge about the practice of American democracy. CSED is committed to the production and dissemination of research that meets high academic standards, is useful to policy makers and informs citizens. CSED-sponsored research has been published by leading academic journals and presses in the areas of campaign finance, voting technology and election reform, presidential and congressional elections, religion and politics and democratic deliberation.

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SOURCE The Deseret News