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    children's paintings stuck to a window

    The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

    Family Life during Covid-19

    W. Bradford Wilcox and Alysse ElHage

    November 17, 2020
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    The covid pandemic and its effects – lost jobs, falling financial fortunes, deaths of family and friends, months stuck in isolation – have drastically changed the lives of billions. In the United States, poor and working-class people have been hit hardest, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reports. So how has all this turmoil affected the family?

    When it comes to US family life in the time of Covid, media reports are mixed – perhaps the pandemic has made families stronger. Or weaker. Divorce is either falling or soaring. As for parents, especially those juggling jobs, child care, and online education, a recent American Enterprise Institute report concluded they are “not all right.”

    The American Family Survey (AFS) has released the first major report on family dynamics since the pandemic began, giving us an early look at the real state of family life during its first several months. The AFS report, from a nationally representative YouGov survey of three thousand Americans conducted in July 2020 by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, allows us to paint a complex picture that tracks closely with the increasingly unequal character of the nation.

    First the good news:

    Stronger Families

    Many marriages have emerged stronger from the pandemic, as couples turn toward one another for support. According to the AFS, 51 percent of husbands and wives (aged 18–55) say the pandemic has deepened their commitment to their spouse or partner, versus only 8 percent who disagree. A majority, 58 percent, also report that this year’s challenges have made them appreciate their spouse more.

    Families are also doing better in other ways. Unsurprisingly, married people in the survey were less likely to report loneliness than their single peers. More families report eating dinner together: up from 49 percent in 2019 to 54 percent in 2020. This is good news; eating dinner together several nights a week has been linked to better health and academic outcomes for children.

    Finally, if we look at national trends, we see that the clear majority of children (about 60 percent) are being raised by their married biological parents. Even better, the share of children in intact families (with biological or adoptive married parents) has ticked upwards in recent years.

    a father and mother and two daughters, photographed at their living room window

    Photograph by Skylar Bird. Used by permission.

    Divorce Is Down and May Decline Further

    More good news: couples who do get married are far less likely to divorce today than during the divorce revolution of the 1970s. In fact, divorce has been declining since the 1980s, dropping about 20 percent over the last decade to a point near the 1970 rate.

    The AFS report indicates that the divorce rate is unlikely to rise because of Covid; the share of married people reporting trouble in their marriages has fallen from 40 percent in 2019 to 29 percent in 2020. (There was a similar pattern during the Great Recession, when divorce declined by 7 percent; some predict it will decline even further in the coming years.)

    Americans also appear to have become less tolerant of divorce. Marriage is increasingly seen as a stable place to raise children, particularly for the college-educated, who are more likely to get and stay married.

    A Decline in Nonmarital Births

    As a result of the pandemic and social distancing, unwed childbearing is likely to decrease. Like divorces, nonmarital births have been falling since the Great Recession, dropping from record highs: the rate of unmarried births decreased from 41 percent in 2009 to 39.6 percent in 2018. According to the AFS, singles reported having markedly less sex in 2020 than married individuals, with predictable consequences for 2021.

    The good news about family in America, then, is that a clear majority of marriages today will go the distance and the share of children being born and raised in stable marriages is rising. All of this is great news for children and their families.

    But there is some bad news that should trouble those concerned about the future:

    Stressed Families

    Even as some families have grown stronger, the shutdowns, isolating conditions, and uncertainty of 2020 have placed enormous stressors on many, especially among those who suffered job or income loss. These economic blows have hit working-class and poor families hardest.

    Overall, about 34 percent of married Americans (18–55) in the AFS survey report that Covid has caused relationship stress. Not surprisingly, financial distress exacerbates problems: 45 percent of those who experienced falling finances say Covid has increased marital stress, versus 28 percent who experienced no financial crisis.

    Declining Marriage Rates

    There are also indications that the marriage rate, already at a record low, will continue to decline as a result of the pandemic. According to the AFS, among unmarried Americans ages 55 and younger, 7 percent say they are postponing marriage due to Covid.

    Moreover, sociologist Wendy Wang shows in a new Institute for Family Studies (IFS) research brief that the share of never-married Americans has reached a new high (35 percent) and is likely to increase further, as has been the case after previous recessions. And, as Lyman Stone recently reported at IFS, state-level marriage-license data show a decline this year (down 18 percent in Hawaii, 17 percent in Florida, 9 percent in Arizona, and 8 percent in Oregon, the four states with data available for the lockdown months).

    This means a large minority of Americans will not enjoy the financial, practical, and emotional benefits of marriage and parenthood, at least for some time. This leaves them vulnerable to isolation and loneliness as they age, increasing their risk of illness and earlier death.

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    More Inequality

    Even worse, the bad news falls disproportionately upon the most vulnerable: the poor and the working class. America is increasingly divided by class when it comes to the structure and quality of family life, with marriage a luxury embraced by the highly educated and affluent, who are more likely to marry for life and raise their kids in marriage. Poor and working-class Americans are more likely to cohabit and raise their kids in less stable unions, with enormous consequences. As Nobel laureate Jim Heckman recently noted, “Household structure plays a major role in shaping US inequality. There is an inherent difference between single-parent households and two-parent households.”

    If we do nothing to address the growing marriage divide, which seems to have deepened in the wake of Covid, we will witness deepening economic and social inequality as the educated and affluent reap the myriad benefits associated with stable marriage – not just more money but greater happiness – while the less privileged are increasingly consigned to unhappy, unstable families or permanent singledom.

    But it does not have to be this way. Policy changes – for example, ending the marriage penalty facing too many working-class families, and passing a child allowance that shores up shaky finances – would help. So would launching a national campaign supporting the “success sequence” that encourages young adults to address education, work, and marriage before having children. Nothing could be more important than bridging this divide. After all, your odds of growing up in a strong and stable family should not depend upon the size of your parents’ bank account.

    Contributed By

    Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies. Alysse ElHage is editor of the Family Studies blog.

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