Politics & Policy

Who Said Red States Couldn’t Foster Stable Families?

(Rfischia/Dreamstime)

Red-state families have a bad reputation. They are supposed to be stuck in an old-school family mentality that is ill-suited to the cultural and economic challenges of the 21st century. Their old-school celebration of comparatively younger marriage and traditional gender norms, as well as their prolife ethos, the conventional wisdom goes, has turned them into dysfunctional cauldrons of divorce, teenage pregnancy, and other family problems. An old-school approach to family isn’t supposed to work in a world where it takes longer to get settled economically, where gender norms are more fluid, and where young adults take longer to grow up.

By contrast, blue states have supposedly gotten their act together. By stressing the importance of education, work, planned parenthood, and delayed family formation, the conventional wisdom goes, blue-staters are forging a new family ethic that is more likely to work in today’s culture and economy. They are more likely to start their families after all their ducks are in a row, usually in marriage, and enjoy higher levels of family stability as a result. So, in the real world, blue states are more likely to embody the “family values” that red states put so much public emphasis upon.

Here’s Neal Conan of NPR outlining the thesis:

New research shows that more liberal states, like Massachusetts, tend to have the lowest rates of divorce and teen childbirth. In other words the most stable families, the homes with two parents to nurture their kids, are found in the liberal strongholds along the East and West Coasts. Conversely, the higher rates of teen childbirth and divorce occur in the red states that conservatives so often celebrate as the heartland of family values.

There is only one problem with Conan’s thesis: It’s only half true. In a new research brief I coauthored with psychologist Nicholas Zill in Family Studies, “Red State Families: Better Than We Knew,” we show that the bluest states in America — places like Minnesota and Massachusetts — do indeed register comparatively high levels of family stability for their kids. Our work suggests that a focus on education and delayed family life in the bluest states does pay off in these states in ways predicted by family scholars like Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, who have pioneered the “blue-state family model is best” thesis.

But, as the figure above suggests, family stability is also highest in the reddest states in America, places like Utah, Nebraska, and North Dakota. In these states, a marriage-friendly culture, higher levels of churchgoing, and a strong sense of community provide a different route to strong and stable families. Our work suggests there is a red-state model that manages to walk the red-state talk when it comes to family, even in 21st-century America.

A marriage-friendly culture, higher levels of churchgoing, and a strong sense of community provide a different route to strong and stable families.

That said, as David Leonhardt noted in “The Upshot” at the New York Times, the red-state model does not work in the South, where the walk doesn’t match the talk. Family instability and single parenthood are comparatively high throughout much of the South, as the map below shows. The legacy of slavery, low levels of education, a history of underinvesting in public institutions, and a Scotch-Irish culture marked by higher levels of family instability all help explain the family fragility found in much of the South.

High levels of family instability and single parenthood in the South matter because, as Leonhardt at the New York Times pointed out:

Evidence suggests that children usually benefit from growing up with two parents. It’s probably not a coincidence, for instance, that the states with more two-parent families also have higher rates of upward mobility.

Talking about the advantages of two-parent families can be awkward, I realize, because it can seem to dismiss the heroic work that so many single parents do. Managing parenthood, work and the rest of life without a partner is deeply impressive. Nevertheless, the sharp rise in single-parent families has contributed to sky-high inequality and deserves discussion.

Given the importance of strong and stable families for child well-being and economic mobility in America, one of the biggest questions deserving further discussion is this: What can we do to help improve the fortunes of marriage and the family in the red South?

W. Bradford Wilcox is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Isabel Sawhill is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and a former co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings.

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