Episode 109: Deseret News national politics editor on what the American Family Survey reveals about family, marriage
Suzanne Bates gives insight to the 2022 American Family Survey, which finds that Americans are divided politically and losing confidence in marriage
Episode 109: Deseret News national politics editor on what the American Family Survey reveals about family, marriage
Suzanne Bates gives insight to the 2022 American Family Survey, which finds that Americans are divided politically and losing confidence in marriage
This episode of the Church News podcast is dedicated to the American Family Survey, an annual nationwide study of 3,000 Americans by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. The 2022 survey found that Americans are divided politically and losing confidence in marriage, but are committed to their own families.
Deseret News national politics editor Suzanne Bates provides insight into the survey and what its findings reveal about marriage and family.
Suzanne Bates: And so as I was looking at the results of the survey, just that family is a gift. Relationships are a gift. They are a gift from our loving God to give us an opportunity to feel His love on this earth. As we love each other, we help feel His love. We help share His love with each other. Our relationships matter and the more we lean into those relationships, the more we can learn about our Heavenly Father and His love for us.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This episode of the Church News podcast is dedicated to the American Family Survey, an annual nationwide survey of 3,000 Americans by Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. The eighth annual survey found that Americans are divided politically and losing confidence in marriage, but loving their own families. To talk about this important survey, we welcome Suzanne Bates, the national politics editor at Deseret News. Suzanne has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Brigham Young University. She is originally from Toronto, Canada, and now lives in South Jordan with her family. A former Air Force spouse, Suzanne and her husband, Matthew, have five children who were all born in different states. Suzanne, welcome to the Church News podcast.
Suzanne Bates: Thank you so much for having me.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, it’s so great to have you with us and to talk about the American Family Survey and hopefully a little bit about your own family, as well. I’m hoping we can start and have you just give us, sort of, an overview on what the American Family Survey is.
Suzanne Bates: Sure, yeah, we survey 3,000 adults a year and ask them questions about how their families and their marriages are doing. We also like to ask them about, sort of, some of the hot issues of the day. So, we got our results in early September. They were asked the questions in August. So, we had some interesting findings this year.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I remember reading a Deseret News headline that absolutely caught my attention, and it said, “Is marriage dying?” So, what did we find in the survey?
Suzanne Bates: We found that fewer people are getting married. From when this survey started in 2015, the number of people who are married has gone down 5%, from 50% to 45%. This is adults in the United States. And a similar number of people are now single. So, it’s not that they’re cohabitating or in relationships. It’s that people are no longer getting married, which is a finding that causes alarm for people depending on what they think marriage does for people.
Sarah Jane Weaver: So, is this indicating a loss of confidence in the institution of marriage?
Suzanne Bates: You know, we don’t know exactly why it is that people aren’t getting married. There was a, sort of, sense of hopelessness that we found in the survey this year, especially on economic issues. People don’t believe that they’re going to be as well off as their parents. They don’t believe their children are going to be as well off as they are. So, you wonder if that is playing into this idea that they shouldn’t get married or don’t want to get married, but what we also see is that people who are not married are more likely to say they’re lonely and are more likely to feel like they’re not connected in their communities. So, that’s a cause for concern.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, you just said so many interesting things and the first part of it is that something has happened to the American dream. People don’t believe that they’ll be better off than their parents?
Suzanne Bates: It used to be, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, about 70 to 80% of people thought that they were going to do better than their parents did and now we’re down to 40%, which is a huge drop. I mean, that’s almost cut in half in a generation or two. And so why is that? Why are people feeling less hopeful about the future? It’s hard, because we get this, sort of, surface level data and you really want to go back and ask more questions like, follow up. You wish you were on the phone with people to say, “Why do you feel that way?” You know, “Why are you feeling so hopeless?” And I thought it was really interesting, too, that parents are unlikely to think that their children will do better than they did and non-parents are even more likely to say the next generation won’t do as well. So again, you wonder, “Are they not having children, because they think that the next generation isn’t going to do well?” And so they think, “Why bother having a kid?” There are a lot of interesting reasons why this might be. Are people worried about an issue like climate change? Are they worried about the economy? What is it that’s driving this pessimism about the future?
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and you know, Suzanne, you and I have kids that are about the same age. My oldest is 23, and I wonder how she’s ever going to be able to afford a house.
Suzanne Bates: Yeah, no, for sure. My oldest is 22, and he’s going to be in the Air Force. He’s at the Air Force Academy right now. So he probably won’t buy a house for awhile, because he’ll be moving around so much, but really, like housing prices are so high and then now we’ve had interest rates go up. And so you know, it’s even more expensive to buy a home and that was another big issue this year with inflation and some of the economic upheaval we’ve had this year. People are feeling kind of pessimistic.
Although, I have to say, when I was a kid, I felt like there was this sort of pessimism about jobs. In the ‘70s, and ‘80s there were high interest rates and it does sometimes feel cyclical, like things are going to get better at some point. But the fact that this next generation doesn’t necessarily believe that, I think it’s as big a concern as whether or not they really will, you know, do better. So, because I think that, some of that hope and optimism makes a huge difference in how they actually do do.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And I want to jump back to something you said when we were talking about this whole American dream, you also mentioned that when someone is single, they feel lonely. I worry a lot about loneliness as an epidemic.
Suzanne Bates: Absolutely, we saw a big jump in the number of people who were reporting loneliness and not feeling connected to their community, and I think that that says something about our society today. I mean, the survey is coming at sort of the tail end or the two COVID years, and so you wonder if some of that was because we were locked in our houses. But it could also be because our society isn’t doing as well at creating institutions and connections between people. So, I see my own kids, like you said, I have teenagers, and they spend a lot of time on their phones or playing video games, and are they getting that face to face time with friends and family that they should be getting? And as we see, that religious attendance drop. People who are religious and go to church actually get more connection time than people who don’t. And so, again, some of these institutions that create community and help us to feel that connectedness to other people, we’re seeing people walk away from those institutions, and so I think that is causing some of these problems.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, you know, as the pandemic was accelerating in those early and mid months of 2020, we did Church News interviews with every member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Elder D. Todd Christofferson wanted to speak about single members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was worried about the isolation, about loneliness, and he said, as a society, we need to have a “constant consciousness” about one another. It feels like the American Family Survey is another alarm bell that we should be being a little more conscious of the people that we live around.
Suzanne Bates: Oh, absolutely, yeah, and I think about some of the single people in my ward who really struggled during those COVID years and felt so lonely and isolated. Because there were reasons we were isolating from one another, but the need to reach out was so important during those years, and I don’t know, did we do a good job? I hope so. But yeah, we do, we need to absolutely be conscious, and I think this survey does show some of those problems. And I mean, families, themselves, seem like they’re pretty happy, and when people are married and are in a family, they’re reporting much more happiness than people who are not. And so how do we convince more people? How do we extend the opportunity to get married to more people? I mean, I think these are public policy problems that are really tricky. There isn’t much that the government can do, at the end of the day, to promote the institution of marriage or parenthood. At least, we haven’t seen policies that have, have had effects in this area. And so, what can we do as a society? What can we do as neighbors to encourage, first of all, to encourage or to help people who might feel lonely, and then to encourage our children, our neighbor, people to look at marriage and families as a positive thing?
Sarah Jane Weaver: And, you know, I think that we all assume, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that we value marriage, but certainly we’ve read BYU studies that show that the marriage age is getting later and later, especially in American society, but certainly in some European areas, as well. And so, did we have any indication or do you have any indication of, of what else we could do? What is it that gives us confidence in the ability to enter a marriage union?
Suzanne Bates: Yeah, so, the survey doesn’t necessarily give us a lot of indication. I think we, as parents, and community members, can speak positively about these things. Sometimes I think on social media, there’s a lot of like, “Oh, marriage and kids are so hard.” I think about some of my friends who, whether they’re with a partner or single, how they hear people talking about having kids and like, it’s just so hard, and we need to be conscious of that, how we talk about our marriages and our families, because they are great. I mean, there, there’s hard things. Of course, there are, but most of us, in fact, that does bear out in this survey, most of us are happy in our marriages. Seventy-five percent of the people that we surveyed said that they felt like their marriage was secure. I mean, that’s a higher number than I think most people think, would be. And so, most people feel happy and secure in their marriage relationships.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I love that. I was thinking about the pandemic again and in November of the year 2020, when President Russell M. Nelson asked, not just Latter-day Saints, but everyone across the world, to use social media as an opportunity to give thanks. And one of the things that I noticed immediately, is that family was something people were immediately grateful for. And I wondered how that played for people who didn’t have those relationships, if that was hard for them to see social media feeds filled with everyone else’s family. But it also directed me to a place to know that this is where people find their joy, in the comfort of secure and very happy relationships.
Suzanne Bates: Absolutely, I mean, relationships matter so much. And I think, too, it’s not just marriage and having children, it’s also like being an aunt or being a grandma or being a sister. I know I find so much joy in the relationships that I have with my siblings and my nieces and nephews, and I think most of us have family — whether it’s our marriage and our children, or our extended family. And I think, yes, relationships matter. I mean, that is, I think one of the messages like, “Is marriage dying?” is like sort of the pessimistic message. And then on the flip side is this message of, “Relationships matter for human flourishing and happiness.” And I think, again, we as Latter-day Saints know that, but it’s amazing when you see these things in like data, when the data bear out exactly what you thought it would say.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And while we’re talking about the pandemic and isolation, we also saw other things manifest during this time including racial tensions and a lot of political divisiveness. And certainly, the survey also reflected some of this political divisiveness that we’ve seen in our country in recent years.
Suzanne Bates: Yeah, I mean, when you ask people how they feel about issues, you do see some pretty stark differences on issues like immigration, on what’s going on in schools, student loan debt relief. Across the board, you’re seeing very different ideas of what should happen from the right and the left. But it’s interesting, because this year, they also, sort of, carved up the electorate by strong Democrats and then moderate, and then strong Republicans and moderate Republicans, and the moderates are closer than, I think, we realize. And they actually make up a smaller percentage of the parties, but there are areas of overlap. Like, most people think there should be some kind of student loan relief, but they want it to be for lower income people. So, they weren’t necessarily happy with what President Biden did with his latest student loan relief, but they do want to see that for lower income people. So there’s nuance here within policies that, I think, sometimes we don’t capture when we just say the right and the left. And so, I think we should also look for that hopeful piece there.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, it sounds like, in addition, when we think about politics, we think right or left, but that actually, many people reside in a very solid middle.
Suzanne Bates: Yes, on different issues you might feel right of center on taxes, but left of center and immigration, like, as individuals, we really don’t fit as neatly into these categories as people would like us to sometimes, and so, I think we need to honor that nuance that we all have and each other’s different opinions on things and not just make assumptions about each other based on whether someone votes red or blue.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And I am part of a politically divided marriage. My husband and I do not share political views often. There are times, certainly, when it comes to to moral issues or issues that our Church leaders have spoken about where we can find some agreement, but our children would easily say that it is important for both of us to vote, so that we can cancel out the other’s vote, but did the surveys tell us anything about to people who may have different political views in marriages?
Suzanne Bates: Yeah, so, people were more likely to say it was OK to marry someone of a different religion than they were of a different political party. And so, yeah, I mean that that’s concerning to me. I mean, our politics, I think, have become almost like, our religious faith on some level. Like we have become so tribal that people aren’t willing to cross political divides and a marriage, that seems really extreme to me. And especially – it’s interesting – and when you look at younger people, women tend to be much more left of center, and men tend to be much more right of center. So, if you find women and men who are not willing to cross that political divide, you’re going to have a whole bunch of people who can’t find partners. So maybe that’s why our young people are struggling to get married.
But yeah, no, I think I mean, in, especially, over the past few years, tensions have been so heightened around political issues. I do think it has caused tension in marriages and families. And so, how do we cross those divides? How do we heal our families and not let politics become something that divides us? I mean, my husband and I agree on most things, but we’ve had a few disagreements and sometimes it gets tense, and then, because I mean, I write about politics and think about it way too much. So, there have definitely been times where we have had some disagreements, but at the end of the day, that needs to matter less. And I think it does matter less to both of us than the marriage, the love that we share for each other.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and this idea that people may be more concerned about political divisions than religious divisions, says that they might associate more with a political party than, even, any religious affiliation.
Suzanne Bates: Yes, absolutely. Well, and I mean, we are seeing that church attendance and, weekly church attendance, especially, has gone down. And so, what does that mean for families and communities? And that’s exactly right. I mean, again, this idea of being tribal, like you’re more tribal about, like, your political identity than you are about these other parts of your life. And I don’t know, that doesn’t feel like a very good thing.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, you know, on a recent Church News podcast, we had Judge Thomas Griffith. He’s a former, retired federal court judge. He lives in Washington, D.C. and he talked about the political divisiveness he was seeing in this nation and what a concern it was to him. And then he talked about how Latter-day Saints are especially equipped to heal a divided nation. And he quoted Eugene England, a late professor that worked for years at BYU and he said that the way the Church is organized, trains and teaches its members to deal with differences. And he said first of all, we’re all organized into wards, by geography, so we don’t get to pick who we worship with. And so, in every ward, there are people of different economic levels, different ethnic backgrounds, different professions and different ages and we all worship together. And he says, and then we’re actually asked to serve with one another and in the process, we learn that God loves those people as much as He loves us and that we actually learn to love them the way Heavenly Father loves them. And so, the organization of the Church actually bridges divisions. He said we should be going out into society and healing political divides.
Suzanne Bates: No, absolutely. And I have to give a shout out to the ward that I grew up in, the Richmond Hill Ward, in, just outside Toronto, Canada. My ward had, I don’t know, we had so many different nationalities, I think it was like over 70 at one count and big socioeconomic variation and it was such an awesome world to grow up in. And really, it’s this idea that President Nelson has talked about that your identity, first, should be as a child of God. I felt that in my ward growing up, that they saw each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, and that that was their most important identity. And so a lot of these other divisions didn’t matter, or these different identities – that do matter – but that the thing that matters the most is that we are all children of God. And so, I feel like I got a really good opportunity to grow up in a world where that was demonstrated on a regular basis.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I think that we are seeing that reflected so much in church communities. You know, the rest of what he said in this landmark address to young adults, and we’ll link to it from the podcast, President Nelson talked about the most important identities and said, you know, we should all identify, first as a child of God, and then second as a child of the covenant and that our covenants are so important, and that third, we’re all disciples of the Savior Jesus Christ. And you think of the Church’s efforts to build temples. At conference, President Nelson announced 18 new temples that brought the number of operating, and announced and under construction temples to 300.
Suzanne Bates: I mean, it’s amazing, and growing up, my family was sealed when I was 11 in the Washington D.C. Temple. So, it was an 11 or 12 hour drive to get to the closest temple. And then a few years later, the Toronto temple was built. I mean, it just, I could feel that difference having a temple that was close by and the difference that made for our family and for our community, our faith community, especially. I do, I think that there are so many things, and both my parents are converts, and so I got to have, sort of, a front row seat to the difference that religion can make in the lives of people who do make those covenants.
You know, my dad had intellectual disabilities. So, I think his family didn’t even think he would have kids or have a family, and my aunt had been a judge and was revered in her community, said to, my parents later in life and said to us kids, like, “What is it that’s different about your family?” And she could feel something. She didn’t expect her brother to have this sort of happy, stable family. And we could share with her that, of course, it was our faith that allowed us to overcome a lot of the limitations that she saw in my father and what she would think would happen to his family. So I know that faith does play a difference in families. And so, again, as we see these numbers of people who are going to church, attending church, going down, you wonder what effect that will have on society.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and certainly the survey is teaching us a lot about what happens when we prioritize or love our families.
Suzanne Bates: Yes, and there is, I mean, the people who do have children, I mean, they’re saying they are spending time with their children. They’re eating dinner with them. Over 70% of families say they eat dinner at least once a week together. Over half of families say they do chores together, and they do activities at home together. People are prioritizing their families when they have them, and so that says something about where we are today as well, that there is this idea that families do matter. And I was talking to someone who works in Washington, D.C. He said, “Look, everyone, politicians love to talk about families and they love, every party loves families.” So that’s something that can help us bridge that partisan divide. We all love, at least, the idea of families, and the idea that we need to support families.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I’m totally interested in the results that talk about family dinner. Over the years, we’ve written a lot about family dinner at Church News, and even quoted some studies that said if you want your kids to go to an Ivy League school, don’t be driving them all over to all these extracurricular activities, just sit down and have dinner with them every night.
Suzanne Bates: Yes, and my kids will laugh if they hear it. I am not great at, first of all, I’m a terrible cook. So, I’m not great at having a sit-down family dinners. But I know that, that time, really what it’s about, the family dinner, and sitting around together is about having communication and talking to your families and your kids. And I know that that matters, and we talk a lot in our family. So we’re not so great at the dinner part, but we are great at talking.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And you know, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, where you did your graduate work in New York City, actually found in a study that they released in 2007, that children who eat dinner with their families are also less likely to smoke or drink or use drugs.
Suzanne Bates: Yeah, no, I mean, there really are so many benefits that come from this dedicated time every day, sitting down with your family, having those conversations, making those relationships matter, showing your children that those relationships matter and making those connections. I think with them, that is just, clearly, so important.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, I want to talk for a little bit about you’ve lived in so many different areas. You’ve seen the United States of America for many different vantage points. What have you learned as you have moved so much and actually analyze families in different geographic areas?
Yeah, I think that families love each other, and families like to do things together no matter where they live. And it’s interesting, I mean, family might look different in certain parts of the country. Some of our wards, we were in New York City ward for a little while in Queens and there were more single parents and more, there were different kinds of families there. But there was so much love in those families and everywhere we’ve lived. We’ve just had such great people that we’ve been able to associate with and to see the love that people have for one another that exists everywhere, which is great to see.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well and Church leaders have also noticed and spoken out against this trend. I think we’ve heard most senior leaders of the Church encourage young adults to get married. Don’t wait for the most financially secure situation. If you find the right person, jump in. And maybe that’s the hope that we were not seeing in the American Family Survey.
Suzanne Bates: Right, and I better not talk about my older children, because they’ll be not happy with me. I think it’s hard. I am really grateful that I did not grow up in the age of internet like, or sort of online, app dating. I don’t know, they’re just, it feels like it’s a weird time to be trying to connect with other people. And maybe that’s just from my vantage point as an older person who thinks this is a strange way to find your partner. But I think there are challenges in this age that maybe we didn’t have when we were younger, and like, how do we get young people into that face-to-face situation where they can talk to one another, rather than having to communicate through devices? I think we, maybe, need to think about how to do that better, because I think this is a tricky time for kids.
Sarah Jane Weaver: This is a huge worry I have, as well. And I worry that the more time young people spend online, the lonelier they are. I think I’ve actually read things that would back that up, but I don’t know how we get our children to be hopeful and engage in relationships the way we did a generation ago.
Suzanne Bates: Yeah, I have a lot of boys. I four boys and one girl, and my teenage boys were really excited about video games. So, I mean, sometimes it took me, literally, I wouldn’t even take the remote. I would just take the whole console and lock it away in my room, so that they couldn’t play anymore to force them out of the house. I think sometimes, as parents, there are things that we can do to try to limit that. But as they get older, they get to make these choices on their own. But I think us talking about it and maybe thinking about how we can create opportunities for people to get off their devices and more in face-to-face spaces. You know, I think we can help with that. I think we can all work on that.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I wonder if some of the loss in confidence in marriage is that young people don’t have the role models that maybe they did a generation ago. You know, there was a time when we saw happy marriages on television, where families gathered around the television at night to watch it together, where society was just a little slower paced.
Suzanne Bates: Yeah, absolutely. Do kids see their parents talking to each other? I have been as guilty of being on my phone as my children have and not engaging enough with my husband or my kids in the evening. And so are we setting that example? Are we letting our kids see all of marriage, like the good and the bad, the how we get through hard times and letting them feel that confidence that they will be able to build their own, happy marriages? You know, I think that the kids need to have that hope that, rather than this idea of perfection, this hope that they can build something that can last.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, in the recent October general conference, I thought was historic in, for many, many reasons. But one of the most interesting things that happened, to me, was the release of the new “For Strength of Youth: A Guide for Making Choices.” We actually had a Church News podcast on that with the Young Men general presidency, because a lot of people thought, “Oh, the Church is, is lowering their standards.” But actually, what our leaders were saying was that the ultimate standard is the Savior Jesus Christ and that in all things, in all of our interactions, in all of our choices, we can look to Him as an example, as a mediator, as someone who we can pattern our lives after, that may make a lot of our decisions easier.
Suzanne Bates: Right, and I think this idea too, that rather than have, like, these checklists, we need to stumble around a little bit and figure things out, and giving our kids that space to learn how to make decisions on their own – which is so hard as a parent. I always want to just jump in and, “This is how you do it.” You know, “This is this is the roadmap you should follow.” But letting them learn how to create their own roadmap and then follow it, that’s, I think, such a great thing for them to learn to do as a young person. I have too many friends who didn’t get that opportunity to really figure that out for themselves when they were young and you see them kind of stumbling through that a little bit in their 20s and 30s. I think that’s not the time you want to be learning that. You need to learn how to make decisions and how to correct yourself as a teenager. I think that’s the best time to do that.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And I wish we could talk about the state of the family in America and the American Family Survey much longer, because there are really some very interesting findings in there. We will link to the entire survey from the podcast notes. And then as we conclude, I want to pose the same question that we always conclude our podcasts with and then give you the final word. And the question is, “What do you know now?” And so, what do you know now after studying and writing about the results of the American Family Survey and how has that confirmed your belief in prophets and apostles and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Suzanne Bates: Yeah, so, I would say that family is a gift. Relationships are a gift. They are a gift from our loving God to give us an opportunity to feel His love on this earth. As we love each other, we help feel His love, we help share His love with each other. And so, as I was looking at the results of the survey, just that message came through so strongly to me is that our relationships matter and the more we lean into those relationships, the more we can learn about our Heavenly Father and His love for us.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast and if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer KellieAnn Halvorsen and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.