The red and blue of family stability

Carolyn Moynihan
Jun 16 2015
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

Family stability is good for kids growing up, and having your own two parents still around as a teenager indicates stability. So, what is the recipe for that kind of success?

Marriage, according to most research, keeps parents together more often than just settling down together does, although cohabitation is on the rise. So, what kind of life script will encourage the younger generation to marry, and stay married?

Some social scientists in the United States have been looking at this question in terms of "red state" (Republican, conservative) and "blue state" (Democrat, progressive) family values. According to these scholars the "red" family model has failed, but a new analysis by the Institute for Family Studies shows that, looking at both in their purest forms, red still has the edge over "blue".

The authors of the IFS study, Brad Wilcox and Nicolas Zill, sum up the case against the red script as follows:

The most thoughtful proponents of this view, scholars Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, have argued that the "red" family model - which discourages premarital sex, encourages younger marriage, restricts abortion access, and idealizes the male-breadwinner/female-homemaker family - is simply unworkable, and maybe even destructive, in the twenty-first century. They point to comparatively high divorce and teen pregnancy rates in many red states as one sign that the red state model has outlived its usefulness.

Cahn and Carbone argue that if more Americans followed the "blue" script of prizing sexual and economic autonomy, focusing on education and professional development in their twenties, and delaying marriage until around age 30, with kids coming after, families would be better off. More generally, they contend that the blue state family model is now better equipped, in today's economy and culture, to provide children with the kind of stable family that is most likely to secure their welfare.

Wilcox and Zill thought the case for the blue script was solid until a New York Times analysis (in The Upshot blog ) showed that conservative areas of the US raise children's likelihood of later getting married. It seemed that, "even if red states have somewhat higher divorce rates, they might also have more children being born into married families; this, in turn, could boost red state family stability over that of blue states."

The stability curve

Using data from the Census Bureau's 2008-2011 American Community Survey, they "examined the chances that a teenager will grow up with his or her married birth parents throughout childhood, and how this measure varies across predominantly Republican and predominantly Democratic states."

Rather than label the state simply red or blue, they constructed an index for each state to show just how red or blue it was. Some were purple. They compared this with the proportion of teenagers (15 to 17) who grew up living with their married biological parents throughout childhood. The percentage varied from 32 percent in Mississippi to 57 percent in Utah.

This produced a U-shaped curve showing that both the reddest and bluest states were more likely to have their adolescents grow up with married parents.

States voting consistently Republican, such as Utah, Nebraska, and Idaho, are more likely than average states to have their adolescents grow up with married parents, but so are states voting consistently Democratic, such as Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey.

And since the educational level and ethnic composition of populations are known to have a bearing on family stability, the IFS scholars also applied those variables to their data. Here is what they found:

As Cahn and Carbone would predict, strongly blue regions like New England have high proportions of teens growing up with married parents in large part because their populations are highly educated (but also because they have fewer minority residents). The blue state model works fairly well in Northeastern and Midwestern states like Massachusetts and Minnesota.

Strongly red states like Utah and Nebraska also have high proportions of teens growing up with married parents, even though red state Americans are less educated than those in strongly blue states. But their residents are more likely to have deep normative and religious commitments to marriage and to raising children within marriage. And these strongly red states also have relatively low proportions of minorities. The red state model works fairly well in the West and the Midwest.

Two takeaways

There are two key takeaways from our analysis. First, one major reason the bluest states have a high share of children in intact families is that they are home to comparatively high numbers of college-educated adults, who tend to get and stay married nowadays.

Second, adjusting for education and race/ethnicity transforms the relationship between the Red State Index and marital upbringing from a curvilinear to a linear one. The redder the state, the more likely is a teen to grow up with his or her married birth parents. The relationship is modest but statistically significant. For every ten-point increase in the Red State Index, the proportion of teens living with both parents rises by one percentage point. This suggests that red state family culture is associated with increased odds of being raised in an intact, married family.

In other words, red state family culture is good for kids, but it is not found equally in the various educational and ethnic groups. It brings stability because, as other results of the IFS analysis show:

Adults are more likely to be married in the red states than in blue, and even more likely when they have a college degree. Family values plus education equals stability, and the best conditions for children growing up.

Like the bluest states, the reddest have low rates of non-marital births. In the blue states this is partly related to education, and in the red, to family culture.

Wilcox and Zill conclude:

The conventional wisdom among scholars about family in America suggests the red state family model has failed to deliver the stability that boosts children's odds of thriving in today's world. But we find that the reddest states in America are more, not less, likely to raise their children in a stable, married home, other things being equal. Yet insofar as residents of blue America prioritize education and work, and postpone family formation, in the ways that Cahn and Carbone prescribe, they too have a path towards stable, two-parent families.

Our bottom line: In understanding the confusing contours of political and family geography, it looks like both education and ideology matter. That's why the bluest and reddest states in America register the highest levels of family stability in the nation.

Another conclusion: Don't give up on family values; but do get an education.