The Divided State of Our Unions 2021

Family Formation in (Post-) COVID-19 America

IFS Website
Institute for Family Studies

Executive Summary

Where is the American family headed as COVID-19 finally seems to be abating? Focusing on family formation in the United States, this report considers three possibilities: (a) the “decadence-deepens scenario,” where marriage and fertility fall further in the wake of the pandemic; (b) the “renaissance scenario,” where men and women turn towards family formation in response to the existential questions and loneliness raised by the last year-and-a-half; and (c) the “family polarization scenario,” where economic, religious, and partisan divides in family formation deepen in post-COVID America.

Based on two new YouGov surveys by the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) and the Wheatley Institution, this report finds the most consistent evidence for the “family polarization scenario.” The “desire to marry” since the onset of COVID-19 ticked slightly upwards, by 2 percentage points overall, whereas the desire “to have a child” among all Americans ages 18-55 moved downwards, with just 10% reporting an increased desire for children, compared to 17% indicating a decreased desire. However, beyond these global shifts in family formation attitudes, which do not tell a consistent story in favor of either of the first two scenarios, there is marked polarization in desires related to marriage and childbearing by income, religious attendance, and partisanship as COVID-19 abates.

That’s because in a pandemic-haunted world where both marriage and fertility seem especially daunting or optional, three ingredients have emerged as signally important for family formation in the United States: money, hope, and a deep dedication to family. And the rich, the religious, and Republicans are generally more likely to possess one or more of these ingredients, compared to their lower-income, secular, and Democrat/Independent-affiliated fellow citizens. The family polarization documented here is especially striking because it augments fissures in American family life that have been growing over the last half century.

Specifically, this study documents five key findings about family formation in America for men and women ages 18-55 as the pandemic abates:

  1. Interest in family formation is higher among the rich. The desire to marry has increased 9 percentage points overall among higher-income Americans who are not married, compared to just 4 percentage points among middle-income and 2 percentage points among lower-income Americans who are not married. Likewise, the desire to have children has increased 1 percentage point overall among higher-income Americans but has decreased 6 percentage points among middle-income Americans, and 11 percentage points among lower-income Americans.
  2. Interest in family formation is higher among the religious. The desire to marry has increased by 8 percentage points overall among unmarried Americans who regularly attend church, synagogue, temple, or a mosque, but has not increased among Americans who never/seldom attend religious services. Likewise, the desire to have children only fell by a net of 1 percentage point among Americans who attend religious services at least once a month but fell by a net of 11 percentage points for Americans who never/seldom attend services.
  3. Interest in family formation is higher among Republicans. The desire to marry has increased by 5 percentage points overall among unmarried Republicans, but only 3 percentage points for Democrats—and it fell by 4 percentage points for Independents. Likewise, the desire to have children rose 1 percentage point overall among Republicans but fell 11 percentage points for Independents and 12 percentage points for Democrats.
  4. These orientations to family formation by religion and partisanship build upon growing gaps in marriage and childbearing from the 1970s to the present by religious attendance and partisanship. For instance, in 2018, there was a 12-percentage point gap in being ever-married between Republicans and Democrats. Likewise, there was a 14-percentage point gap in childlessness between those who regularly attend church and those who never/seldom attend. COVID-19 seems likely to deepen these cultural divisions.
  5. When it comes to class, the story is more complex. On the one hand, COVID-19 seems likely to augment the growing class divide in marriage. On the other hand, COVID-19 appears likely to narrow the class divide in childbearing. Historically, the poor have been more likely to have children than more educated and affluent Americans. But childlessness is rising among less-educated, lower-income men and women, a trend that COVID seems likely to amplify. This would bring childbearing trends among the poor closer to those of more educated and affluent Americans.

So, just as COVID-19 fueled polarization in attitudes towards public health, socializing, and politics, the pandemic also seems to have heightened differences between Americans when it comes to interest in forming families. As the pandemic lifts, the nation is likely to see a deepening divide between the affluent and everybody else, between the religious and the secular, and between Republicans and Democrats in their propensity to marry and have children.

Download the full report here.

The Divided State of Our Unions 2021 Home

Click to Navigate to Section

Download the Report