Survey: America has changed. Have government and business?

January 12

Are government policies and business practices out of touch with the changing state of American families? A new survey, which is part of a broader examination of the role of women in society, shows that many Americans believe the answer to that question is yes.

The survey was commissioned for the Shriver Report, the third study spearheaded by NBC News reporter Maria Shriver, in collaboration with the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.

The report, which will be unveiled with a series of appearan­ces and events beginning Sunday, notes that there has been “a seismic shift” in the structure of American families, including the rise of single-parent households and that the majority of children born to women under 30 have unmarried mothers.

At the same time, the report argues that government and business have been slow to recognize the changes and adopt policies that recognize these new realities. The report asserts that this has been particularly hard on women, who carry burdens of being both breadwinners and principal caregivers to children, particularly those living on the financial brink.

What the accompanying national survey of 3,500 adults shows is that more Americans think government and business should adapt to the changing reality of American families as compared with those who say government should do what it can to promote traditional marriage and two-parent households.

The survey looked at attitudes of all Americans and particularly “women on the brink,” which the authors say account for one in three women in America, probing issues of financial well-being, government policy, and personal decisions that have affected individuals’ lives. The polling was done by the Democratic firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and the Republican firm TargetPoint Consulting.

One section of the survey prefaced questions by noting the statistics on births to women under age 30 and asked people about the best role for government in these times. Far more Americans say government should address society as it now is rather than seeking to return to what it was.

For example, the survey found that 64 percent of all respondents and 77 percent of women on the brink agreed with this statement: “Government should set a goal of helping society adapt to the reality of single-parent families and use its resources to help children and mothers succeed regardless of their family status.”

In contrast, only a bare majority of Americans and of women on the brink agreed with this statement: “Government should set a goal of reducing the number of children born to single parents and use its resources to encourage marriage and two-parent-families.”

More Americans agreed that women raising children on their own face major challenges and that government, business and communities should help them financially than those who agreed with the statement that unmarried women who have children should take complete financial responsibility for those children.

The contrasting choices framed what remains a broad political divide over the impact of cultural and demographic chan­ges that have transformed the country in a matter of decades.

Research has shown that children have a greater opportunity for success if they are raised in intact, two-parent households. But the answers to the survey indicate that many people, particularly financially stressed women who head single-parent households, say government should worry less about what has happened and do more to find ways to help their families succeed.

Women and men expressed general optimism about their financial futures, though younger women were far more positive than older women. Almost nine in 10 women under age 30 said they believe their financial situation will get better during the next five years, while just a third of those over age 64 expressed that same view.

One striking finding on this question was that there was no difference between women in households with annual incomes of less than $20,000 and those with incomes of more than $100,000. But those lower-
income women were much more likely than wealthier women to express the view that the harder they work, the more they fall behind, and that even if they made the right choices in life, “I still could not get ahead because the economy doesn’t work for people like me.”

About seven in 10 lower-
income women said they regretted not staying in school longer, and slightly higher percentages said their regrets included not making better financial decisions and not putting a higher priority on education and career.

One thing that divorced women did not regret was getting out of their marriages. Only about a fifth of the lower-income women who also were divorced said they regretted not staying in their marriages longer. In contrast, the survey found that divorced men were far more likely to say they regretted not staying longer in their marriages than were women.

When the survey turned to questions about what business could do, lower-income women put as high a priority on policies that provide greater flexibility to accommodate for family responsibilities as they did on increased pay and benefits. The policies that drew the highest responses were paid sick leave or leave to care for a seriously ill family member.

Among the most popular governmental policy options were equal pay for women for equal work (popular among women and men) and protecting the right of pregnant women and new mothers to prevent them from being fired or demoted when they become pregnant or take maternity leave.

The survey was conducted between Aug. 21 and Sept. 11, 2013, among a random national sample of 3,500 adults, including landline and cellphone respondents. According to the two polling firms, the survey included oversamples of 250 African American (574 in the total sample) and 250 Hispanic adults (501 in the total sample) to allow for more detailed subgroup analysis. The sample was adjusted to census proportions of sex, race or ethnicity, age, and national region. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 1.7 points. Results for smaller subgroups have a bigger margin of error.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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