Bridging America's Growing Family Divide | Opinion

COVID-19 turbocharged polarization in America. Although many hoped the pandemic would bring us together, on many fronts—from masking to in-person schooling—it drove us farther apart. A new report suggests this polarization extends to the home front. As the Delta wave recedes, Americans look more divided than ever—by income, religion and political allegiance—when it comes to their desire to start a family.

Interest in marrying climbed modestly, by 2 percentage points overall, since the pandemic hit last year. But this interest varied across the lines that most deeply divide America today. The rich, the religious and Republicans reported the greatest overall increase in the "desire to marry" while the poor, secular Americans and Democrats reported less or no increase in marriage interest, according to a new YouGov survey of men and women aged 18-55 by the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) and the Wheatley Institution.

At the same time, 18-to-55-year-old Americans' post-pandemic interest in childbearing fell seven percentage points since last year. But the "desire to have a child" tanked much more among poor, secular and Democratic Americans than it did among their more affluent, religious and conservative fellow citizens.

The country was already polarizing along family lines before COVID-19 hit. The percentage of IFS/Wheatley survey respondents who are married with children was 31 points higher among the rich than the poor, 28 points higher among the religious than the secular and 15 points higher among Republicans than Democrats. Our nation is increasingly divided not just by income or race or geography but also by marriage and parenthood.

Contributing to this growing family divide is the fact that, for many younger Americans, marriage and childbearing increasingly appear to be optional. For the less advantaged, they can seem unattainable. In today's world, it's the educated and the affluent—who have the means to afford a comfortable family life—and the religious and Republicans, who have the motivation to marry and have kids regardless of income.

New York parents
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 08: People wear protective face masks while walking through the Union Square Greenmarket as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on August 8, 2020 in New York City. The fourth phase allows outdoor arts and entertainment, sporting events without fans and media production. Noam Galai/Getty Images

This divide is worrisome for emotional, financial and political reasons. At a moment marked by social distrust, political polarization and declining in-person interaction, Americans who are married with children have an advantage when it comes to built-in social support. As stressful as family life can be, men and women who have formed families are less likely to report feelings of loneliness and meaninglessness. In fact, men and women aged 18-55 who are married with children are more likely to say they are "very" or "pretty" happy, especially compared with those who are not married and do not have children—although it's unclear whether that's because family life creates happiness or because the happiest among us are more likely to get married and have children.

This family divide also has obvious financial implications. One reason the rich are rich is that they are more likely to get and stay married. Marriage today usually means two incomes, economies of scale and more saving, all of which translate into more income and assets for those Americans who get and stay married. This helps explain why married families and households represent a much greater share of the top quintile of income (80 percent) than the bottom quintile (38 percent), and single-parent or single-person households dominate the bottom quintile and are much less likely to be found in the top quintile. The growing polarization of marriage along class lines is only reinforcing our economic divisions.

The political implications of this divide are also real, though largely unrecognized. The policy concerns of Democrats are going to gravitate ever more toward helping singles, including single parents, with jobs, wages, child care and safety net programs; those of Republicans are going to tilt more towards helping married families through such proposals as the mortgage interest deduction and lower taxes. If this family divide deepens, finding common ground in Washington will only get harder.

The two of us—a Republican and a Democrat—are committed both to families and to de-polarizing American public life. We see two ways to bridge this divide. First, conservatives should jettison their traditional aversion to family policy—it's 2021, not 1980—and embrace policies that make it easier for ordinary Americans to form and maintain families. Policies like the expanded child tax credit, paid family leave and access to affordable child care and health care have to be part of the package.

Second, progressives who dominate the commanding heights of our culture should stop discounting the importance of marriage and families to people's well-being. Too much mainstream messaging—from movies like Marriage Story to articles like The Washington Post's "Parenthood seems to make us unhappy. So why do we keep doing it?"—gives the false impression that marriage usually ends in divorce and that family life is misery-inducing. But the truth is that, today, most marriages go the distance and men and women living in families are doing better than their peers flying solo without children.

It will take both public policies and cultural changes to bridge the family divide that COVID seems to have deepened. Surely no one wants the alternative: an America where family life is increasingly determined by the size of your bank account, whether you darken the door of a church on Sunday or the political party for whom you cast your vote.

Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, is a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Isabel Sawhill is an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.