Red vs. Blue Families

It’s fairly common for advocates of more liberal social policies to point out that “red states” tend to have higher rates of divorce, teen pregnancy, etc than “blue states”. This is taken to suggest that, however much conservatives may go on about “family values”, it is actually more liberal social values which are best for families. Ross Douthat does a good job of addressing this mentality in his column from last Sunday, in which he takes a closer look at some of these “family values” statistics.

Today, couples with college and (especially) graduate degrees tend to cohabit early and marry late, delaying childbirth and raising smaller families than their parents, while enjoying low divorce rates and bearing relatively few children out of wedlock.

For the rest of the country, this comfortable equilibrium remains out of reach. In the underclass (black, white and Hispanic alike), intact families are now an endangered species. For middle America, the ideal of the two-parent family endures, but the reality is much more chaotic: early marriages coexist with frequent divorces, and the out-of-wedlock birth rate keeps inching upward.
When it comes to drawing lessons from this story, though, the agreement between liberals and conservatives ends. The right tends to emphasize what’s been lost, arguing that most Americans — especially the poor and working-class — would benefit from a stronger link between sex, marriage and procreation. The left argues that the revolution just hasn’t been completed yet: it’s the right-wing backlash against abortion, contraception and sex education that’s preventing downscale Americans from attaining the new upper-middle-class stability, and reaping its social and economic benefits.

Conservative states may have more teen births and more divorces, but liberal states have many more abortions.

Liberals sometimes argue that their preferred approach to family life reduces the need for abortion. In reality, it may depend on abortion to succeed. The teen pregnancy rate in blue Connecticut, for instance, is roughly identical to the teen pregnancy rate in red Montana. But in Connecticut, those pregnancies are half as likely to be carried to term. Over all, the abortion rate is twice as high in New York as in Texas and three times as high in Massachusetts as in Utah.

So it isn’t just contraception that delays childbearing in liberal states, and it isn’t just a foolish devotion to abstinence education that leads to teen births and hasty marriages in conservative America. It’s also a matter of how plausible an option abortion seems, both morally and practically, depending on who and where you are.

Whether it’s attainable for most Americans or not, the “blue family” model clearly works: it leads to marital success and material prosperity, and it’s well suited to our mobile, globalized society.

By comparison, the “red family” model can look dysfunctional — an uneasy mix of rigor and permissiveness, whose ideals don’t always match up with the facts of contemporary life.

But it reflects something else as well: an attempt, however compromised, to navigate post-sexual revolution America without relying on abortion.

On additional point which Douthat does not draw out is that the high divorce rates in red states are closely related to the fact that marriage continues to be fairly common in these states. For instance, the Massachusetts divorce rate has hovered around a low 2.2 from 1990 through 2007, while Alabama had a divorce rate of 6.1 in 1990 which was still 4.6 (more than twice MA’s rate) in 2007. However the marriage rate in Massachusetts was 7.9 in 1990 and declined to 5.9 by 2007, while Alabama’s marriage rate only declined from 10.6 to 9.0 during the same time period. Obviously, if you never get married int he first place, you can’t get divorced. The fact that increasing numbers of Massachusetts residents are simply not getting married does not necessarily speak to the strength of the “blue state” approach to marriage. [source data]

20 Responses to Red vs. Blue Families

  • There are more problems with this book that I’ll outline in about a week. I have the post 3/4’s written but have to run some regressions and what not. I imagine you and your fellow travelers will largely be in agreement with me.

  • You read Douthat’s piece and came away with a completely different impression of it than I did. Of course, in my blog post on the subject, I did acknowledge that I may have been reading Douthat’s piece through my Ross-colored glasses, which probably tends to somewhat negatively distort anything written by the guy.

    I probably could have just let this one go, but for his gratuitous swipe at Bristol Palin.

  • I probably could have just let this one go, but for his gratuitous swipe at Bristol Palin.

    I thought it was pretty obvious from the context that he was characterizing the authors of the book as the kind of people who would make such a comment rather than taking a swipe at her himself. Judge for yourself:

    This is one of the themes of “Red Families v. Blue Families,” a provocative new book by two law professors, Naomi Cahn and June Carbone. The authors depict a culturally conservative “red America” that’s stuck trying to sustain an outdated social model. By insisting (unrealistically) on chastity before marriage, Cahn and Carbone argue, social conservatives guarantee that their children will get pregnant early and often (see Palin, Bristol), leading to teen childbirth, shotgun marriages and high divorce rates.

    I could be wrong, but it never occurred to me to read it otherwise. He is laying out their argument in that paragraph; and the rest of the editorial is critical of that simplistic portrayal of Red America, and (implicitly) the kind of people who would cite Bristol Palin as the exemplar of backwards redstate America. Notice, the conclusion of the piece:

    By comparison, the “red family” model can look dysfunctional — an uneasy mix of rigor and permissiveness, whose ideals don’t always match up with the facts of contemporary life. But it reflects something else as well: an attempt, however compromised, to navigate post-sexual revolution America without relying on abortion.

    Translation: Red State America does not take abortion as an easy way out; this decision has consequences that aren’t always pretty, but it also reflects a lived moral conviction.

  • MZ,

    Sounds interesting. I’ll keep an eye out for it. (In the mean time, I’ll try to figure out if I should be flattered or perplexed at having “fellow travelers”.)

    Jay,

    Yeah, I didn’t get that he was rolling over to the book’s thesis at all, but rather refuting it. But while I want to argue with anything Rod Dreher says, Ross Douthat doesn’t fall in that camp for me.

  • Yeah, I didn’t get that he was rolling over to the book’s thesis at all, but rather refuting it.

    I’m with Jay on this one – it sounded like it was Ross himself backing the authors’s thesis.

    There is an easy way out of this morass, of course. Douthat could have, at some point, made an affirmative denunciation of the thesis and spelled out why the authors were mistaken. Instead we get a subtle jab that leaves the reader perplexed as to what exactly Douthat’s personal point of view is.

  • It was pretty clear as written, Paul; certainly Darwin and most of the commenters at the New York Times picked it up quickly enough. Douthat’s point is that attitudes toward abortion – not abstinence education or an emphasis on marriage or the simple stupidity of people in Red America – account for most of the differences we see in out-of-wedlock birth, early marriage (and accompanying divorce), etc.

    The contemporary liberal narrative downplays this fact. Abortion is becoming increasingly unpopular, so liberals want to argue that increased access to contraceptives will reduce the need for abortion, and that it is cultural conservatism that, in effect, increases the abortion rate. Douthat just points out this argument doesn’t square with the facts; teen pregnancy is lower in blue states primarily because abortion is more prevalent. That’s why Darwin and Chris Burgwald flagged the article; it refutes a central part of the contemporary liberal diagnosis of red state America – the myth of social conservatism increasing the abortion rate.

  • Jay:

    I’m normally a Douthat fan, but I did think this article was weirdly written for some reason so while I noted as Darwin did that he ultimately refuted the thesis, that I didn’t feel great about him doing so. Not sure why.

  • The whole concept of the book is wrong-headed I think in its analysis of Red and Blue states. There are really very few states that fit in that category. For example I live in Blue Illinois. Outside of Chicago and some of the suburbs, most of Illinois has life conducted along the lines of a Red State by the lights of the book. The reverse is true of Red States, Texas for example, with large urban enclaves. This mixed quality of the states would have to be taken into consideration when looking at statistics regarding marriage and divorce. Additionally, I think we are at the beginning of a political era where the Red and Blue divisions may soon seem like relics as much as the divisions between the Whigs and the Jacksonian Democrats do today. The political landscape is changing rapidly, as I think Illinois will demonstrate in the fall.

  • “teen pregnancy is lower in blue states because abortion is more prevalent”

    Well, actually it would be teen BIRTH rates that would be lower in those states. I have seen lists of nations with the lowest teen pregnancy rates and the lowest teen birth rates side by side, and they are NOT identical, so statisticians do have a way to compile those statistics separately. (Switzerland, for example, is in the bottom five nations as far as teen birth rate, but does not have the same ranking for teen pregnancy rate.)

    If Douthat’s theory is true, blue states would have the same or possibly even higher teen PREGNANCY rates, but lower teen birth rates, the difference being due primarily to abortion.

    The only other possible cause for such a disparity would be a high rate of miscarriage or stillbirth due to poverty or poor medical care; that might be a factor in some Third World countries but probably not so much in the U.S., even in areas of extreme urban decay.

  • Also, figures in some of the red states may be considerably skewed by the impact of (illegal) immigration.

  • There is an easy way out of this morass, of course. Douthat could have, at some point, made an affirmative denunciation of the thesis and spelled out why the authors were mistaken.

    There is little indication from his writing that Ross Douthat has the background to have much critical engagement with a piece of quantitative social research, so he would be advised to tread rather carefully in commenting on that. It’s regrettably been years, but I have done this sort of work on this sort of topic and (judging from the literature I reviewed and my own analyses) you generally get ambiguous results.

    Of course, the book could be flawed in all kinds of ways that a layman could spot quite readily. Awful lot of groupthink in academe.

    But while I want to argue with anything Rod Dreher says,

    The bulk of what Brother Dreher has to say is he is upset. No point to arguing with that.

  • Well, actually it would be teen BIRTH rates

    Yeah, mistyped.

    The bulk of what Brother Dreher has to say is he is upset. No point to arguing with that.

    Heh. A little harsh, but there’s a lot of truth there.

  • If Douthat’s theory is true, blue states would have the same or possibly even higher teen PREGNANCY rates, but lower teen birth rates, the difference being due primarily to abortion.

    While the terms are being used a bit interchangeably in the comments here, Douthat does successfully make the distinction, and the data he links to does indeed bear this out. For instance:

    Alabama has a pregnancy rate for 15-19 year olds of 73 out of every 1000 women. Connecticut has a rate of 57. For in Alabama only 20% of those pregnancies end in abortion, while in Connecticut 53% do. West Virginia has a teen pregnancy rate of 62, which is the same a Rhode Island’s rate of 62 — but in West Virginia only 17% of those pregnancies end in abortion while in Rhode Island 42% do.

  • Regardless of whether Douthat was using her as an example of the kind of people the authors were talking about, Bristol Palin should not have been brought up at all.

  • The bigger point might be the supposed connection between morality and whether one is red or blue. As much as either side tries to convince that it is more moral than the other, neither the public examples, nor the statistics are there.

    If you wanted to analyze the big picture on abortion or divorce, you’d have to draw in economics, religion, and education, among other factors. They used to say the moral majority is neither. It’s still true.

  • Regardless of whether Douthat was using her as an example of the kind of people the authors were talking about

    It’s not that she typifies the type of people the authors were writing about (although she does in some respects). It’s that she is a common example cited by people like the authors. Douthat is laying out the lefty worldview; and Bristol and Sarah Palin references are common. Is that unfair to Bristol? Sure. But I don’t think re-stating the blue state critique of red-state America in its own terms makes Douthat morally reprehensible.

  • Todd,

    I’m not clear that moral conservatives necessarily claim to be more moral than social progressives, they just claim that they continue to espouse morality while their opponents consider it “repressed” or “outdated”.

    Of course, the other point here is that claimed moral beliefs are certainly not the only difference between the populations of “red” and “blue” states. In this sense, although it’s an oft used distinction, trying to make these distinctions is overly broad.

    As I’m sure you’d agree “red” and “blue” (there’s a certain late-Roman quality to how attached we are to these color designations) in the sense of left-politics/right-politics can contain a whole host of contradictory groups within one label. I would imagine that you share much more in moral/cultural outlook with those in the Moral Majority (however distasteful you may find their politics) than you do with the sort of folks who write long self-examining essays about how monogamous marriage doesn’t make sense in the modern world for The Atlantic, even if you might share some of the same favorite politicians.

    Data that I have seen which is more explicitly broken down by actual stated moral beliefs does show that, while as should come as no surprise to anyone those who espouse traditional moral beliefs are far from perfect in their practice of them, people who claim to believe in traditional morality, attend some sort of religious services regularly, etc. do tend to have fewer sexual partners, “wait” longer as teenagers, etc. Whether people claim allegiance to moral norms is not irrelevent to their behavior, even though many do not life up to their own stated ideals.

  • I suspect those on the left have their own moral positions though they may deny that. Just look at the furor over such issues as immigration restrictions, global warming etc. And like those on the right, there are many on the left that do not live up to their moral positions.
    No one is the equal of their ideals. The problem is what ideals are the right ones. Then, how to implement them.

  • Thanks for the comment, Darwin. I suspect that “researchers” on this topic go after their perception of hypocrisy from the Right. In a way, all they have to do is point to select developments in Republican-leaning regions, say “gotcha!” and move on. Point proved.

    I have yet to see a serious across-the-board study that would link abortion, divorce, and other issues with geography, politics, wealth, education, race, etc.. Unfortunately, any serious sociologist who attempted one would either be too biased from the outset, given the polarization of the culture, or would get hammered from both sides of the ideological divide. For now, I think we exist in a state of ignorance when it comes to other people’s morality. And maybe it’s better that way. Heaven knows I have my hands full with my own moral temptations.

    I’m not sure I would equate this situation too much with the parable of the two sons, the one who promised to work then didn’t (conservatives) and the one who declined to give lip service, but then reconsidered and labored (liberals). But we do know there are prominent folk who do not live up to their stated guiding principles. I’m disinclined to credit that as a torpedo to the movement, even ones I disagree with.

    I know, for example, a number of homosexuals who are highly moral people. For some people on the Right, they would trip over the sex and not get any further.

    Sex is a big part of morality, in part because of our culture’s fixation on it, but it’s not the only factor.

  • I grew up in New York and raise my family in NJ, the statistics in this book challenge stereotypes of both liberals and conservatives. However, I just read Frank Luntz’s book, “What Americans Really Want…Really”. Based on polls taken in the U.S. it states that families who regularly attend church and children who are brought up conscious of God and family life are often more aware about the consequences of their decisions and how a religious family life is beneficial to children. Luntz states that children who attend church, eat dinner as a family, take family vacations etc are less likely to take drugs. He also states parents should go over their children’s homework daily. There are tips that can benefit both red and blue families. If rural America and poor areas tend to have higher teen birth rates and unstable families then the U.S. Govt should be working harder to bring quality education and jobs and rescources to these areas especially. Also, many jobs that illegals hold may be desirable to poorer and less educated Americans. Hence, the unfortunate recent bias attacks in Staten Island where people in poorer areas were hostile as illegals came to their neighborhoods and took the jobs available in a sluggish job market. Also, since contraception is so widely accepted since the 60’s the governments role in promoting (politically or financially) contraceptives doesn’t seem so vital in blue states. Teens in middle class blue states are educated and now have the access they need.

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