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Parenting experience largely formed by financial situation, survey says
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Pew Research Center has released a new survey showing "outlooks, worries, aspirations" are formed in large part by what a family's financial situation looks like. - photo by Lois M. Collins
A family's financial circumstance contributes greatly to what the parenting looks like, including how much parents worry about children's safety, their views on their neighborhood and whether kids get to participate in extracurricular activities, according to a new report on parenting.

While the financial bottom line creates a base to launch children, it's not the only base. Related factors like parents' education levels and family structure also impact American family life, said "Parenting in America," a national survey report released Thursday morning by the Pew Research Center.

"There's a big parenting divide based on financial circumstances when it comes to the experiences that parents are having," said Juliana Menasce Horowitz, associate director for social trends research at Pew.

She noted high correlation between family type, parental education and family income. The report confirmed that children in single-parent households are more likely to live in poverty than are children whose parents are married to each other.

"The financial outcomes for these different types of families are very clear," she said, noting that 31 percent of single-parent households in the report live in poverty, compared to 21 percent of cohabiting-parent households and 10 percent of married-parent households.

Married-parent households are much more likely to say they live comfortably, while cohabiting and single-parent households are much more likely to say they "don't even have enough money to meet basic expenses," Horowitz said.

Attitudes can yield solutions

While there are different ideological theories on what challenges families, conservatives are more likely to believe culture challenges matter most, like more births out of wedlock, while liberals say lack of economic opportunity matters most most experts are beginning to believe it's a combination, said Andrew Cherlin, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. He was not involved with either survey.

Social scientists have long noted that education and income level create marriage divides and thus impact parenting. Among those with low education levels, marriage is less common; college-educated parents are more likely to get married.

Cherlin recently said that economics and culture both play a role in that chasm: Those with just a high school education or less have a harder time finding jobs that provide a livable wage, while on the culture side, there's more acceptance of having kids outside of marriage, he said.

Horowitz said that Pew, in the new survey, emphasized finances because so much depends on financial resources, including living in a neighborhood that's good for raising kids, affordable after-school programs and being able to afford a child's extracurricular activities.

Understanding what challenges families always matters, "because we care about providing stable family life for children," said Cherlin. He called "what's happening to children our most important public concern."

Jeremy C. Pope, an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, believes studying public opinion on family matters provides insight into the challenges that families face and a direction to tackle it.

The center teamed with the Deseret News for the American Family Survey, a national poll that examined marriage and family life, parenting and policy issues. It too found financial concerns among respondents, including a perceived high cost of raising children. In that survey, only a third of those questioned said raising children is affordable for most families.

"Knowing how the public views marriage and family is an important step in diagnosing problems and identifying potential solutions where everyone can agree," he said of that report. He was not involved with the Pew study.

Income and safety

The report found that lower-income parents are more likely to worry about their children's personal safety than are higher-income parents "worrying about their children being beat up or attacked, kidnapped or even shot. They're also more likely to worry about teen pregnancy and their kids getting in trouble with the law. We found that they gave their neighborhoods lower ratings as a good place to raise kids."

Higher-income parents are much more likely to call their neighborhoods "excellent" or "very good" for raising kids, 78 percent versus 42 percent for low-income parents, according to the survey. Of families with incomes below $30,000, one-third describe the neighborhood as "fair" or "poor" in terms of a place to raise kids. Those words are used by only 7 percent of parents whose incomes are at least $75,000.

"Concerns about teenage pregnancy and legal trouble are also more prevalent among lower-income parents," the report said. "Half of lower income parents worry that one of their children will get pregnant or get a girl pregnant as a teenager, compared with 43 percent of higher-income parents. And, by a margin of 2 to 1, more lower-income than higher-income parents (40 percent vs. 21 percent) said they worry one of their children will get in trouble with the law at some point," according to the report.

Both higher- and lower-income families worry that their children will be bullied or have anxiety or depression. But prioritizing the concern changes with family income levels: Those with incomes above $75,000 are more worried about that than any other listed concern.

Too involved?

The Pew report found some differences based on the parent's generation Millennial, Generation X or Baby Boomer. But "for the most part, the generational differences are more related to the age of the children, not the parents," Horowitz said.

Most parents want others to see them as good parents, especially their spouse or partner and their own parents. They are less concerned about how "the community" view them, and worries about how their children's other parent or friends view their parenting skills falls somewhere in the middle.

In the Pew survey, mothers (68 percent) were more likely than fathers (54 percent) to express concerns about sometimes being overprotective. Moms were also more apt to say they give in too quickly when dealing with their children.

Although higher-income families in the Pew report were more likely to say they volunteer at their kids schools for things like field trips or to help in class, there was no real difference between high- and low-income parents when asked if they attend Parent Teacher Association meetings or meet with teachers to check the child's school progress, Horowitz said.

Parents in low-income families expressed the idea that there's no such thing as being too involved in their kids' schools; higher-income parents say it is possible to do too much. Horowitz said no difference was found when asked how satisfied parents are with their own involvement with their kids' schools.