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Posts Tagged ‘values’

Do We (Still) Value Family?

American families have changed a lot over the last half-century or so: Americans are marrying later, typically after cohabiting; divorce and remarriage are creating variations of “blended” families; most mothers now work outside the home; more fathers spend more time with their children but fewer of them live with their children–just to hint at some of the tumult in family life. The question of this post is whether, given all this change, Americans continue to value  family life or have family bonds significantly weakened? I addressed the marriage part of this question in the previous post; this one addresses family life beyond the couple.

Americans certainly worry about “the” American family. In a 2000 Wirthlin poll, about three in five said that they thought the “state of the American family” was either “not very strong” or “weak.”[1] In a 2006 Pew survey, by over two to one, more people said that family life is worse “these days” than said it was now better than before.[2] And yet: Only a few years later in another Pew survey, 40 percent of respondents said that their families today were “closer” than were the families they grew up in–about three times as many (14 percent) who said that their current families were less close.[3] The contrast between the two Pew surveys not only reflects our localism bias (the closer things are to us–our families rather than others’ families–the better they look), it may indicate a mismatch between popular perceptions of “the” family and personal experience.

Let’s take a look first at some behavioral indicators of family bonding and then at some measures of family feeling and see how they have changed over recent decades.  Some of the findings may be surprising.

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What Americans Have Been Thinking

The pundits are busy sifting the election litter for clues about what Americans are thinking. (They voted for compromise! They voted to raise taxes on the rich! They rejected old white men! They’ve expressed their inner greed! And so on.) It might help to step back, seek some perspective, and review what we actually know about what Americans think about important issues and what direction their thinking has taken in recent decades.

Since 1972, the General Social Survey (which I have often drawn upon for this blog) has been the premier, high-quality, long-run compilation of what Americans have to say about their public and their personal concerns. A valuable new book, Social Trends in American Life, edited by Harvard sociologist Peter Marsden, explores the trends found in the GSS on a dozen different topics. In the last 40 years, Americans have changed dramatically in some regards and, surprisingly, not changed in other regards. Here is a sample of what the contributors found.

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Choose Your Choice

We are entering the season of the Great American Choice, the quadrennial selection of our leader.

Choice  defines the freedom and the integrity of the individual in American culture. Except for perhaps the most God-fearing among us, the right and duty to choose trumps most other values . . . .

I pursue this topic in my column in the Boston Review, linked to here.

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