By now it should be axiomatic that surveys and polls tell us as much about the people who conduct them as they do about those they query. What’s involved is the census-taking equivalent of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the notion that pollsters affect the content of the responses they receive merely by deciding what it is they want to measure.
These thoughts came to mind again with release late last year of a new survey on family values by the MassMutual Life Insurance Co. Much of the survey was unexceptionable and the analysis sound. Large majorities of the 1,200 people interviewed identify family life as their foremost source of satisfaction, with friendships lagging a distant second. A majority also seem to believe that as family goes, so goes the nation. “Lack of parental discipline” and “declining family values” were cited most often as the cause of modern social problems.
In fact, the role of the family loomed so important with most of the respondents that, as Dr. Albert Solnit of Yale’s Child Study Center put it, people cherish their families and family history “even when their experience has been less than perfect.” Happy and unhappy families are alike at least to that degree, Tolstoy’s famous aphorism notwithstanding.
Apart from these reinforcing findings, however, MassMutual’s analysts were able to discern-perhaps through ruse-colored glasses-a distinct strain of political implications in the survey results. As an Associated Press story noted, the survey uncovered the “fact” that Americans by a 3-1 margin prefer to define family in terms of “love and care” rather than the traditional legal concept of a “group related by blood, marriage, or adoption.” The survey went on to conclude that most Americans “are not interested in the Moral Majority agenda. In this poll, the majority believe in family values without accepting the prescriptions of some moralists.”
If that pejorative phraseology does not give away the inclinations of the survey authors, a closer look at the data surely does. The heart of their argument, carried without caveat in most press coverage, is that on a list of 28 items broadly described as “family values,” respondents ranked support for school prayer 25th and opposition to abortion 27th. One might gather from this that “opposition to school prayer” and “support for abortion” were somewhere on the list and presumably ranked higher. Not so. One might also suppose that the list included a comprehensive set of public-policy propositions clearly expressed as such and ranked accordingly. Not so-school prayer and abortion were the only policy issues examined.
Instead, the list of family values, apart from these two issues, was a set of very general propositions, ranging from “respecting one’s parents” (2nd) to “having a happy marriage” (6th) to “having nice things” (26th). A few of the general propositions, unmentioned in press accounts, cut against the conclusion that a moral agenda is irrelevant to most Americans: “having faith in God,” “being married to the same person for life,” and “following a strict moral code” ranked 10th, 12th, and 13th, respectively.
Pro-family people realize that they have their work cut out for them in the present media-political climate, but, if anything, the MassMutual survey offers some encouragement. Nearly all of the family values studied in the survey received positive grades from the respondents-”opposition to abortion” was 27th on a very warmly received list (in fact, it fell just three places behind “helping your community or neighborhood”). Fifty-three percent of the respondents felt that opposition to abortion reflected a family value either “pretty well” or “very well.” Only 19 percent replied “not at all well.” For school prayer the corresponding numbers were 63 percent and 13 percent.
What about the matter of the definition of the family? Although the survey analysis did not explore this issue in its most politically charged terms, vis-a-vis proposals for “domestic partnerships” and homosexual marriage, the authors are at pains to show that family “is not defined in terms of households or bloodlines.” Family values, they state, have really to do only with “the nature and quality of relations with others.”
Given the choice to define family in terms of loving and caring relationships, membership in a household, or relations of blood, marriage, and adoption, the vast majority of people selected the first term. For that, let us rejoice. Religious people are the last to deny that the meaning of “family” has its most profound roots in the ideal of self-sacrificial love. Christians in particular take their cue from a teacher who gave a rather broad definition of both family (Luke 8:19-21; Matthew 12:46-50) and neighbor (Luke 10:29-37).
No one should find fault (or draw conclusions) if Americans, for once, fail to think and respond legalistically. MassMutual did not ask its respondents to choose between the traditional and pop culture definitions of family, nor did it exemplify the differences and ask respondents to classify their views accordingly. Most Americans would likely select “places like groceries and gas stations” as the definition of “business” rather than cite the Uniform Commercial Code or Black’s Law Dictionary. But the social and legal significance of their doing so would he minimal. Had MassMutual desired to determine whether most Americans wish to jettison the traditional family unit as a foundation stone of law and public policy, that could have been probed directly.
A generally unreported question in the survey actually did ask the respondents who they mean by close family. They answered by citing most often 12 relationships established by “blood, marriage, or adoption”; a reader must wade that far before coming to one founded on another basis: “friends,” chosen as “close family” by only one of every 10 respondents. In fact, the respondents were relatively restrictive in defining close family even where legal criteria are fully met: only half of the respondents who actually had stepchildren defined those children as close family.
Among the most interesting insights the survey did afford were an affirmation of the importance of family time and a suggestion that many people have a bleaker view of family life in general than of their own lives as members of families. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed felt that the quality of American family life is getting worse; 62 percent believe that family values have weakened; even higher percentages are pessimistic about the state of the family 10 years from now. Despite this, over 70 percent find their own family life to be “very satisfying” or better.
Bias in the polling sample or an unwillingness to confess family problems to strangers are possible explanations for these results. There are others as well. Articles about successful families and happy anniversaries are staples of the nation’s community press, club newsletters, and church bulletins. But as has often been observed, they do not make for dramatic cover stories or lead reports on the evening news. G. K. Chesterton once summarized his contempt for journalists by remarking, “They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. Thy cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complete picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious: they can only represent what is unusual.”
Many people who are now hearing of the family’s demise didn’t know that the poor fellow was sick. This raises a delicate issue for pro-family advocates, who have taken on as a solemn responsibility trends in abortion, divorce, child abuse, and drug use. We argue, with a wealth of supporting evidence, that the family is in deep trouble. But it is no accident that those who would bury the family altogether take peculiar pleasure in this form of doomsaying; they are anxious to pronounce the body cold and to list the cause of death as suicide.
It may be closer to the truth to say that unfavorable trends are real and of considerable magnitude, but nonetheless that a fraction of the population accounts for a disproportionate amount of the depressing statistics. For example, nearly half of the women who enter America’s abortion clinics today (usually alone) have been there before-almost 15 percent of them at least twice before. The typical child molester, according to the Attorney General’s Task Force on Pornography, molests an average of 366 children in his lifetime. Criminologists like Travis Hirschi have demonstrated that specialization among criminals is rare: the car thief, burglar, drug dealer, and assailant are not four people but one and the same.
What can we do, and soon, to restore the reality and the perception of health in American family life? Families themselves, especially those who make less than $30,000 per year, told MassMutual that “spending more time with family” was the most important means of strengthening family values. Having a “full-time parent raising kids” was the fourth most-often cited option. Providing day care and having a full-time relative care for kids were each chosen by less than 20 percent of the respondents.
These findings dovetail with other recent major surveys of family preferences. Advocates of federally subsidized day care from infancy tend to shrug off this kind of data and argue that the next decade will inevitably lead to nearly three-quarters of families having two full-time wage earners. If Congress and state legislatures listen to what families say they want, however, they will look for ways to ease policies like the “parenting penalty” that permeate the federal and state tax codes and are helping drive more and more young mothers with children into the job market.
Today a professional couple using paid child care and making $150,000 a year has access to tax credits and write-offs that can be worth as much as $11,800 in annual tax savings. Parents who make one-fifth of that amount but care for their own children get no relief at all. Pointing out that anomaly might have put some additional meat on MassMutual’s bones, but that wouldn’t have done much to gore the “Moral Majority” ox.
School prayer and abortion-the items highlighted in the survey-are comfortably within the realm of family values, but they are something else, too: questions closely allied to the First and Fourteenth Amendments, to civil rights as much as to family values, and, above all, to the nature of the relationship between the individual and the Creator who, as our Declaration states, endows each one of us with every right that matters.
Gary L. Bauer, domestic policy advisor in the Reagan administration, is President of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.