A majority of Americans believe marriage is necessary for strong families and that it makes them better off financially, according to a new survey. But is it increasingly a luxury most people can’t afford?

The annual American Family Survey has been conducted by Utah's Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, together with YouGov, since 2015. Each year it has been administered to 3,000 adults who resemble the general population.

The 2019 AFS finds that the percentage of married respondents has declined from 52 percent in 2015 to 48 percent in 2019, while those in no relationship has increased from 30 percent to 34 percent, but authors note these patterns have been fairly stable over the past three years (p. 7). Importantly, most Americans continue to view marriage favorably. For example:

60 percent agree that marriage makes families and children better off financially;

54 percent agree that marriage is necessary to create strong families; and

50 percent agree that society is better off when more people are married (p. 9; Appendix p. 14).

Yet the AFS also highlights some troubling findings about the economic challenges facing families. 

The 2018 AFS found that more respondents are identifying economic issues among the most important ones facing families, 59 percent compared to 51 percent in 2015 (pp.  19-20). Economic or financial security was a top prerequisite for marriage among AFS respondents in both the 2018 and 2015 surveys (2018, pp. 24-25; 2015, pp. 19-20) but not because they want to live a life of luxury.

More respondents were concerned about the costs associated with raising a family, 35 percent in 2018 compared to 26 percent in 2015. (p. 19). For men and women between the ages of 18 and 29 who don’t have children yet the factor they’re most likely to select as “extremely important” in their decision to have children is the cost of raising them, 48 percent of men and 53 percent of women (pp. 25-26).

The Census Bureau has also found that achieving economic security is a leading prerequisite for marriage among young adults ages 18 to 34. Being economically secure, which nowadays is assumed to include having a college degree, takes time, so it’s not surprising that the median age when people first marry has been steadily increasing since 1950, from about 21 and 23 years old for men and women, respectively, to 28 and 30 years old in 2018.

The 2019 AFS emphasizes one finding in particular, as the Washington Free Beacon reports:

The picture that the AFS paints is a striking one: In general, marriage in 2019 is far more common among high-status individuals than low-status ones. Almost any way you slice it, marriage is increasingly a luxury. Nearly 30 percent of those who make less than $40,000 a year are married, compared to 59 percent of those who make more. Nearly 60 percent of those with a college degree are married, compared to 43 percent of those with a high school degree or less.

Given the findings from annual American Family Surveys, the Census Bureau, and other organizations, it isn’t surprising that people want to be financially secure before they marry and have children. However, we cannot allow the costs of raising children to become so burdensome that marriage is beyond the financial reach of most Americans. Improving family leave policies would help.

The 2019 AFS found that maternity and paternity leave, caring for spouses, children, and elderly parents were among the leading types of family leave, and respondents across income categories took just over two months of family leave on average (pp. 19-20). While low-, middle-, and high-income AFS respondents took family leave at similar rates, far fewer low-income respondents had access to paid leave through their employers than higher-income respondents, 37 percent compared to 48 percent for middle-income respondents and 64 percent for high-income respondents (pp. 20-21). Higher proportions of low-income Americans paid for family leave themselves and/or with the help of family and friends instead of through their employers (pp. 22-23).

Most AFC respondents favor individuals making contributions to their own family leave, regardless of whether employers or government contribute to paid leave (pp. 26 and 27). A majority of respondents also believe employers should cover the costs of maternity and paternity leave, 60 percent and 55 percent respectively, but even larger majorities believe individuals should pay for time off to care for other family members, ranging from 70 percent to 79 percent, depending on the circumstances. Regardless of the reasons for taking family leave, most AFS respondents do not believe government should be primarily responsible for paying for it (Appendix, p. 27).

Not surprisingly, when asked to consider various paid family leave proposals being considered in Congress, support among AFC respondents is tepid. 

A leading challenge of offering equitable paid family leave through government entitlements is that they disproportionately benefit higher-income Americans, as my IWF colleague Kristin Shapiro has noted. Another leading drawback of government entitlement programs is their cost, and the AFS survey found that most respondents don’t favor paying for government paid leave programs through higher taxes. Respondents are also wary about using existing programs such as Social Security to finance paid leave programs (pp. 27-30).

Shapiro provides a helpful summary of some of the leading paid family leave proposals, as does my IWF colleague Patrice Lee Onwuka; however, both of them note that there is no consensus over the best way to pay for those plans.

Yet the latest findings from the AFS do offer some important guidance for state and national policymakers. First and foremost, most Americans favor marriage, but they don’t want to become government dependents just to raise their families. This means government should embrace policies that encourage employment opportunities and the creation of businesses of all sizes. Importantly, few AFC respondents are concerned about finding good jobs, 16 percent, which is three percentage points lower than the 2015 AFC survey (p. 13). Even fewer respondents identify a lack of government family programs as a concern, 15 percent. Still, more than one-third of respondents are concerned about the costs associated with raising a family, 35 percent in 2019 compared to 24 percent in 2015 (p.  13).

Such results suggest that lowering taxes across-the-board is the best policy option. That would empower Americans to save for family leave themselves and be better able to afford taking time off work regardless of the circumstances. Lowering taxes and costly regulations on employers would make it easier for them to offer generous paid leave policies, which would help them compete for workers.

Marriage is vitally important to a thriving society, but that doesn’t mean government should micro-manage it. On the contrary, government should remove obstacles to economic prosperity for all Americans so they can work, save, and provide for their families as they see fit.