Crises Put Families to the Test

30 Oct 2020

This year’s edition of the American Family Survey – an annual snapshot of the American family – gave further support to the consistent conclusion that strong families support strong individuals, who in turn support strong neighborhoods and societies, in a virtuous circle. But the COVID-19 crisis has accentuated differences.

In some respects, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as an equalizer – keeping behind closed doors the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the active and the inactive of all races, colors and creeds. But it has not affected everyone in the same way. Not surprisingly, people react to crisis situations differently according to their pre-existing conditions and to the specific challenges they face within restrictions common to all.

Each year, the American Family Survey attempts to provide a glimpse into the self-reported experience of ordinary Americans of all stripes, living different daily realities, to gather knowledge about best practices and to reveal where help may be needed. Some of the yearly survey questions are repeated each year, and others are adapted to the current panorama.

The 2020 survey saw respondents facing a health crisis of unimaginable proportions and restrictions on commerce and freedom of movement to which democratic societies are unaccustomed, at best. While families – and individuals – hunkered down to protect themselves and the common good from an unforeseen enemy in the shape of an invisible virus, their views on the social, economic and political scenes revealed both preexisting differences and differences spurred or exaggerated by their own COVID reality. 

The report was launched in a Brookings Institution webinar hosted by Richard V. Reeves, Senior Fellow and Director of the Future of the Middle Class Initiative at Brookings and Co-Director of the institution’s Center on Children and Families. 

“As you can imagine,” he opened, “this has been a particularly interesting year to look at the way in which American families are flourishing and surviving the pandemic, as well as the ongoing pressures that American families face in the modern world and the resilience that so many of those families are showing.”

Results confirmed a documented continuing declining trend in marriage in the US, with about 5% fewer respondents reporting that they were married. Those reporting no relationship at all rose by 7%, to 37%, and people cohabitating with their significant other remained stable. Extended families sharing a household were also up 5%.  

Regarding specific questions about marriage, there was slightly more general apathy than in the past towards the institution itself – with younger cohorts more likely to characterize marriage as old-fashioned or outdated. Older cohorts revered marriage by as much as 20 or 30 percentage points more than younger ones. As in previous surveys, more people reported feeling positively about their own marriage than about marriage in general. There was a slight uptick in the importance people gave to their role as spouse or partner. Only 10 percent of those in relationships did not feel that the pandemic had made them appreciate their partner more. Even though a quarter recognized that the pandemic had increased the stress in their relationship, 62% reported that this had not caused them to question its basic strength. 

These perceptions were correlated with outside stressors, however. Among people who had not experienced significant economic hardship due to the epidemic, around one fifth reported increased stress and one tenth questioned their marriage. But among those who had faced economic crises, those numbers were two or three times as high. 

Parenting concerns revealed similar results. The percentage of respondents who gave particular importance to their identity as parents rose in 2020 by 9% compared to the previous year. And while most people felt they were doing alright as parents, the one fifth to one third who were concerned about their performance were highly correlated with those with economic hardships.

Self-reported feelings of loneliness did not increase from 2019, despite stay-at-home orders. But the link between relationship status and loneliness held steady. Loneliness remained highly correlated with the absence of a healthy relationship.

American Enterprise Institute Visiting Fellow W. Bradford Wilcox interpreted the findings as indicative of a positive turn for family stability insofar as many people have realized the value of family support in hard times, both in economic and in personal terms. Nevertheless, he also anticipated a short-term fall in already historically low marriage and fertility rates coming out of the pandemic, in part for practical reasons. On the whole, though, he was hopeful that the value of a stable support system would be highlighted by the extreme circumstances of 2020.  

For his part, Reeves, whose research focuses on inequalities, was concerned about the ways these might be heightened by the crisis. “I think what we are going to see is that the pandemic will deepen already existing divides”, he said. He referenced how families with the resources to invest in their children and access to school systems with better remote-learning offerings would emerge in better condition. Wilcox concurred that equality issues had been aggravated, and would likely “lead to a decline in both marriage and childbearing for working-class, poor, and perhaps Black and Hispanic adults,” which he characterized as a particular source of concern for him, as “someone who thinks that generally speaking marriage and parenthood are good things.”

Wilcox summed up the situation as a “sort of paradox moment where marriage has less purchase both symbolically and practically in our lives, and yet it seems like it may be mattering more, particularly coming out of a time when we are facing a great deal of economic and social, and I think, unfortunately, political turmoil ahead of us.”