Red Family, Blue Family, Yellow Family (Wait, That’s Just The Simpsons)

A new book by Naomi Cahn and June Carborne called Red Families v. Blue Families

The authors on Huffington Post:

It is big news that women who go to college, join the workforce, and delay having children don’t lose money when later on they do combine work and family. A recent study by researchers from the University of Maryland and UCLA looked at the economics of women who didn’t have children until they were over the age of 26, and found that their earnings were comparable to women who had never had children. Earlier studies add that women with a college education are much less likely to opt out of the workforce when they have a baby than are women with less education.

This is great news, unless of course you worry that all these older, ambitious working mothers are shortchanging their children, but this turns out not to be true either. As we show in our book, Red Families v. Blue Families, the college educated, who postpone childrearing until the parents achieve a measure of financial self-sufficiency and emotional maturity, have become more likely to marry and less likely to divorce than the rest of the population, with two-parent families that remain intact, replicating the statistics that existed before no-fault divorce, the pill and legalized abortion.

Perhaps more surprisingly, these mothers spend no less time on childcare than similar mothers of earlier generations — it’s housecare, not childcare that’s changed. Indeed, Princeton University sociologist Sara McLanahan observes that “Children who were born to mothers from the most advantaged backgrounds are making substantial gains in resources. Relative to their counterparts 40 years ago, their mothers are more mature and more likely to be working at well-paying jobs. These children were born into stable unions and are spending more time with their fathers.” By contrast, the rest of the country has seen skyrocketing rates of non-marital births, divorce, and single-parent families, magnifying the effects of income inequality on children. And these poorer mothers are the ones more likely to cycle in and out of the workforce, limiting their earnings potential while feeling pressed to adequately care for their children.

How do dual career families manage the juggling act so much better than more traditional families? The well-kept secret is that investments in human capital, in college degrees, specialized training and experience, and workforce stability pay off for employers as well as employees. Employment studies show that the greater a woman’s education and experience the more likely she is to work in a flexible labor environment and to live in a state that mandates greater parental leave and other family benefits. Younger, less educated, and less skilled women find that they bring less to the bargaining table in negotiating with their bosses. When they cannot get sufficient maternity leave to manage the second child, they quit. When their children require more after school time, they may find it easier to switch employers than to switch schedules. They are more likely to return to school after their children complete elementary school than before they are born. As a result, they find work-family balance harder to manage than their better off peers — and their children fall farther behind in the share of society’s resources they enjoy.

Jonathan Rauch in National Journal:

Can it be? One of the oddest paradoxes of modern cultural politics may at last be resolved.

The paradox is this: Cultural conservatives revel in condemning the loose moral values and louche lifestyles of “San Francisco liberals.” But if you want to find two-parent families with stable marriages and coddled kids, your best bet is to bypass Sarah Palin country and go to Nancy Pelosi territory: the liberal, bicoastal, predominantly Democratic places that cultural conservatives love to hate.

The country’s lowest divorce rate belongs to none other than Massachusetts, the original home of same-sex marriage. Palinites might wish that Massachusetts’s enviable marital stability were an anomaly, but it is not. The pattern is robust. States that voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in both 2004 and 2008 boast lower average rates of divorce and teenage childbirth than do states that voted for the Republican in both elections. (That is using family data for 2006 and 2007, the latest available.)

Six of the seven states with the lowest divorce rates in 2007, and all seven with the lowest teen birthrates in 2006, voted blue in both elections. Six of the seven states with the highest divorce rates in 2007, and five of the seven with the highest teen birthrates, voted red. It’s as if family strictures undermine family structures.

Naomi Cahn and June Carbone — family law professors at George Washington University and the University of Missouri (Kansas City), respectively — suggest that the apparent paradox is no paradox at all. Rather, it is the natural consequence of a cultural divide that has opened wide over the past few decades and shows no sign of closing. To define the divide in a sentence: In red America, families form adults; in blue America, adults form families.

Cahn and Carbone’s important new book, Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, from Oxford University Press, is too rich with nuance to be encompassed in a short space. But here is the gist.

For generations, American family life was premised on two facts. First, sex makes babies. Second, low-skilled men, if they apply themselves, can expect to get a job, make a living, and support a family.

Fact 1 gave rise to a strong linkage between sexual activity, marriage, and procreation. It was (and still is) difficult for teenagers and young adults to abstain from sex, so one important norm was not to have sex before marriage. If you did have premarital sex and conceived a child, you had to marry.

Under those rules, families formed early, whether by choice or at the point of a shotgun. That was all right, however, because (Fact 2) the man could get a job and support the family, so the woman could probably stay home and raise the kids. Neither member of the couple had to have an extended education in order to succeed as spouse or parent.


But then along come two game-changers: the global information economy and the birth-control revolution. The postindustrial economy puts a premium on skill and cognitive ability. A high school education or less no longer offers very good prospects. Blue-collar wages fall, so a factory job no longer cuts it — if, that is, you can even find a factory job.

Meanwhile, birth control separates decisions about sex from decisions about parenthood, and the advent of effective female contraception lets men shift the moral responsibility for pregnancy to women, eroding the shotgun marriage. Divorce becomes easy to obtain and sheds its stigma. Women stream into the workforce and become more economically independent — a good thing, but with the side effect of contributing to a much higher divorce rate.

In this very different world, early family formation is often a calamity. It short-circuits skill acquisition by knocking one or both parents out of school. It carries a high penalty for immature marital judgment in the form of likely divorce. It leaves many young mothers, now bearing both the children and the cultural responsibility for pregnancy, without the option of ever marrying at all.

New norms arise for this environment, norms geared to prevent premature family formation. The new paradigm prizes responsible childbearing and child-rearing far above the traditional linkage of sex, marriage, and procreation. Instead of emphasizing abstinence until marriage, it enjoins: Don’t form a family until after you have finished your education and are equipped for responsibility. In other words, adults form families. Family life marks the end of the transition to adulthood, not the beginning.

Red America still prefers the traditional model. In 2008, when news emerged that the 17-year-old daughter of the Republican vice presidential nominee was pregnant, traditionalists were reassured rather than outraged, because Bristol Palin followed the time-honored rules by announcing she would marry the father. They were kids, to be sure, but they would form a family and grow up together, as so many before them had done. Blue America, by contrast, was censorious. Bristol had committed the unforgivable sin of starting a family too young. If red and blue America seemed to be talking past one another about family values, it’s because they were.

When you understand all of that, you also understand why you can do a good job of predicting how a state will vote in national elections by looking at its population’s average age at first marriage and childbirth. In 2007, for example, the states with the lowest median age at marriage in 2007 were all red (Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Utah). The states with the highest first-marriage age were all blue (Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island). The same pattern holds for age at first childbirth. Massachusetts is highest (about 28 years old), Mississippi lowest (about 23 years old).

A further twist makes the story more interesting, and more sobering. Cahn and Carbone find an asymmetry. Blue norms are well adapted to the Information Age. They encourage late family formation and advanced education. They produce prosperous parents with graduate degrees, low divorce rates, and one or two over-protected children.

Eugene Volokh on Rauch

Andrew Sullivan on Rauch, giving us a link to Lexington at The Economist:

I have nothing but respect for Rauch, both as a journalist and as an exemplar of true family values. His recent Atlantic piece on caring for his dying father was incredibly moving. Full disclosure: he’s also a friend.

But I wonder about his headline. First, consider the limitations of the data. A state is a very large unit, and only slightly more than half the people in it have to vote Republican for it to count as “red”. The most socially conservative states are in the South, where the group with the largest problem with family breakdown—African Americans—votes solidly Democratic. So I’d want to unpack the numbers a bit more.

It may be that preaching about family values forces people into premature or shotgun weddings which then fall apart. But it seems equally plausible that this story could be, in large measure, about class. Americans in poor red states are surrounded by family breakdown, so they fear it more, and make it into a political issue. The college-educated classes, who trend blue, have low rates of divorce and single parenthood. They are also better equipped, financially at least, to cope with the consequences of family breakdown should it occur. So they don’t worry about it as much, and are repelled by politicians who wax sanctimonious about it.

I really don’t know the answer, so I’ll have to read the book.

Doug J. on Rauch

David Frum at FrumForum on Rauch

E.D. Kain at The League:

Having children young or before you’ve both finished your degree and found fantastic careers and so forth is much more difficult financially. My wife and I really did have a lot of growing up to do, and the lifestyle change was difficult (though the sleep, or lack thereof, was certainly the hardest change).

Then again, I think it goes quite a ways beyond that. It has a lot to do with your family’s economic situation and level of educational achievement also. If you come from a solidly middle or upper-middle class family and you get married young you also stand a much better chance of getting a helping hand from grandparents and probably have a better chance in the job market due to education and connections and so forth. Certainly it is harder having children young and not having two incomes or not having finished all your education, but for us and for many of the younger couples I know, it is not an insurmountable challenge – if those families come from a stable economic background.

I am lucky to have highly educated parents who are generous and willing to help both with the kids and, should the need arise, financially. Perhaps I would need less help if I had waited seven or eight years to have children, but I can’t say that for sure, nor can I say the quality of my life would be any better. I might have just spent a lot more time going out on the town and playing music with friends and not really getting serious about anything. That’s all fine and good, but it pales in comparison to the joy I experience – the real, fierce, raw joy of having a daughter.

I think in the end you can look at issues like this and you can say – sure, traditional social customs don’t necessarily work in modern times, that they have precisely the opposite of the intended effect. Birth control really can improve the lives of young people, especially in the global economy we live in. Abstinence really is something of a pipe dream for most people. Divorce happens regardless of faith. But you have to also look at the economic and educational starting point of these people and ask yourself – even with birth control, even without marrying young or having kids young, how do people from poorly-educated, lower-class families ever break out of these cycles?

Andrew Koppelman at Balkinization:

The red-state, conservative ethic has always been suspicious of sex education. Evangelical Christians, who are the most militant proponents of the red-state ethic, are three times as likely as non-evangelicals to believe that sex education should not be taught in schools. (108; all page references are to Cahn and Carbone’s book.) Government support for contraception, especially contraception provided to teenage girls without their parents’ knowledge or consent is anathema. Such girls should not be having sex at all. Contraceptive information is likely to encourage them to flout moral norms with impunity. Unwanted pregnancy is unfortunate but valuable as a deterrent to premarital sex.

It was this ethic that produced the move to abstinence-only sex education, which is now the predominant approach in a third of American schools. (110) But there is no evidence that such education makes abstinence until marriage more likely (96% of Americans have sex before they marry, see 175), or produces a decline in teen or nonmarital births, and some evidence that it produces an increase in both, because it is more likely that a girl will not know how to contracept at the time of her first sexual experience. (3, 111) The effect is particularly pronounced with respect to black and Latina girls, who are disproportionately exposed to abstinence-only education. Two-thirds of white women, but fewer than half of black women, have received instruction about contraception before their first sexual encounter. (111)

It is no accident, then, that the United States has the highest rate of unplanned teen pregnancies in the industrialized world. (8) Three in ten teenaged girls become pregnant before they turn 20, and four-fifths of these pregnancies are unplanned. (91) In 2006, half of all pregnancies were unplanned, and these were concentrated below the poverty line. (90) The rate of unintended pregnancy is 69% for African-American women, 54% for Latinas, and only 40% for white women. (173)

Here is where abortion comes in. Among African-Americans, 43% of conceptions end in abortion, compared with 25% of Latinas and 18% of whites. It should be no surprise that the rate of abortion correlates heavily with the rate of unplanned pregnancy. African-American teen births dropped in the 1990s, but this was true in large part because abortion rates, which fell for white teens, remained higher for minority teens (172).

If you want to lower the abortion rate, then, the most obvious way to do it is to provide better information about contraception to the women who now are experiencing high rates of unintended pregnancy, in schools and also by providing comprehensive sex education to women over 18 (173).

The Republican leadership, however, has opposed any such funding. Most recently, they succeeded in pressuring Obama to strip out expanded funding for family-planning services from the stimulus bill. House Minority Leader John Boehner emphasized that any such funding would benefit Planned Parenthood, which delivers abortion services. He did not mention that such funding would lower the rate of abortions.

Republicans worry that sex education will lead to more premarital sex. There’s not much evidence that this is true of any particular sex ed program. The major effect of such programs is to prevent sex that was going to happen anyway from leading to pregnancy and disease. (It is true that the birth control pill helped bring about the sexual revolution of the 1960s, but it’s too late to reverse that.) But even if keeping girls ignorant would reduce the rate of premarital sex to some extent, how many abortions would be too high a price to pay for that?

The argument I’ve just been making is, of course, a classic blue-state argument. I’m not really the one who can make it effectively to pro-lifers, since I’m a strong supporter of abortion rights: I still endorse the much-reviled argument that such rights are required by the Thirteenth Amendment.

But somebody on the religious right ought to be reflecting on the now-obvious fact that the policies that they have been supporting are directly responsible for millions of abortions. If leadership is now going to be exercised in order to reduce the abortion rate, it will have to come from them. Opposing contraceptive education is politically popular in the red states. But how can a politician who sincerely believes that abortion is the killing of a person, and who is aware of the data I’ve just described, ethically take advantage of this opportunity?

Maggie Gallagher at Townhall:

The more you look at this provocative thesis, the more improbable it becomes.

The elephant in the room is the one issue Cahn and Carbone want to avoid because they wish to tone down the culture wars around the family: abortion.

The five states with the highest abortion rates, they note, are all blue family states: New York, Delaware, Washington, New Jersey and Rhode Island. By contrast, the states with the lowest abortion rates are mostly red or at least purple: Utah, Idaho, Colorado, South Dakota and Kentucky.

Could attitudes toward abortion be the real source of the red family/blue family divide?

Fueling this suspicion is the data that Cahn and Carbone provide on the out-of-wedlock birthrates. For here, the neat red/blue lines break down, especially once race is taken into account. In 2004, the five states with the highest white out-of-wedlock birthrates were a politically mixed lot: Nevada, Maine, West Virginia, Indiana and Vermont. States with the lowest rates of unwed childbearing were also mixed by party dominance: Utah, New Jersey, Connecticut, Colorado, Idaho and the District of Columbia. The authors note this fact but never integrate it into their theory.

The data that do not fit are usually the most important data.

The blue state/red state family divide appears to be largely driven by different values regarding abortion. Red states have more opposition to abortion politically (which makes them red), which would tend to result in more early childbearing, earlier ages at marriage and a more mixed record with regard to out-of-wedlock births. (More traditional commitment to marriage would drive down the out-of-wedlock birthrate, but greater moral objection to aborting unexpected pregnancies would drive up a state’s out-of-wedlock birthrate.)

The marriage gap has a great deal to do with social class. People with graduate degrees may be more sexually liberal in theory, but end up surprisingly conservative in actual practice. They tend to discount the importance of public moral norms around sex and marriage because they see their families flourishing under postmodern conditions, and because they and their children have the most access to “private” social, human and moral capital.

Nonetheless, in spite of their theoretical imperfections, if Cahn and Carbone can convince progressives that reducing divorce and early unwed childbearing are not traditional family values at all but postmodern blue ones to be embraced as the happy fruit of liberal social values, they will have done a service to our country.

Ross Douthat in NYT:

To Cahn and Carbone’s credit, their book is nuanced enough to complicate this liberal-friendly thesis. They acknowledge, for instance, that there are actually multiple “red family” models, from the Mormon West to the Sunbelt suburbs to the rural South.

More important, Cahn and Carbone also acknowledge one of the more polarizing aspects of the “blue family” model. 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.

Via Douthat, Eve Tushnet here and here. Tushnet:

The idea is that families in “blue states” are relatively adept at transmitting some aspects of a marriage culture to their children. Massachusetts, e.g., is home to families where the children mate for life. Meanwhile “red states” produce children (they produce more children, usually, by the way) who marry in haste and repent in somewhat-delayed-haste, lots of divorces and out-of-wedlock births and similar signs of family-values hypocrisy. When I say “this isn’t new,” I mean, “I got 10 cents off my Caribou coffee by knowing that Mississippi has an extraordinarily high rate of out-of-wedlock pregnancies more than a year ago.”

These are facts, and there are a lot of ways of responding to these facts. You can explore ways in which the contemporary economy and culture, by (for example) prioritizing postsecondary education and stigmatizing living with one’s parents, has made it extraordinarily difficult to sustain a culture of more-or-less postponing sex until marriage. You could criticize the notion of marriage as the capper on life’s to-do list, to be sought only once all the other boxes are checked and you’re “stable,” rather than a foundation for a later stable life. You could, in other words, ask why a consumerist culture is so hostile to a communal and marriage-based way of life.

You could maybe talk about Protestantism! Catholic states tend to have very different problems from Protestant ones: They tend to be aging states–whether we’re talking about Massachusetts or Italy–where divorce is rare but birthrates are low. What can the competing Christian cultures teach one another?

You could look for institutions and traditions within so-called “red state” cultures which promote lifelong marriage and serve to more-or-less-okay manage the problem of intercourse. You could find heroes and show how “red state” life works, when it works, and which conditions need to be in place for it to work.

These are all things you could do.

The other really fun thing you could do, though, is blame “red state” families for being Not Our Kind, Dear. It is just so sad that their pathetic religious delusions make them slutty hypocrites. (Yum, by the way; I think hypocrisy makes your breasts bigger.) You could argue that they’re really promoting abortion, ’cause it’s their fault they haven’t adapted to the contracepting, college-educated ways of the elite. It’s not about poverty, or the fatalism it breeds, or the terrifying knowledge of how close you really are to falling off the ladder. It’s about Baptists suck.

You could wage class war, in other words, on the side of the privileged. You could focus on shaming people who are really different from you, and not on figuring out how marriage and family life can be strengthened across a variety of religious and moral beliefs and a variety of class and cultural backgrounds.

Of course, if the (for example) Catholic view of marriage is simply doomed and pathetic, then I guess it’s just ripping off the Band-Aid quickly to say so. But I really think if you spend any time with actual humans actually trying to make decisions about their sexual lives, their unborn children, their religion, and their relationships, you will not sound the way a lot of the “red vs. blue families” commentators sound.

More Douthat

Noli Irritare Leones

UPDATE: Ross Douthat and Naomi Cahn at Bloggingheads

1 Comment

Filed under Abortion, Books, Families, Politics

One response to “Red Family, Blue Family, Yellow Family (Wait, That’s Just The Simpsons)

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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