Blue families are better than red families. From the media to the academy, this is the new conventional wisdom about political culture and family life in America. Take Neal Conan at NPR: “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.”
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 the red 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. They contend that the blue-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.
There is only one problem with the conventional wisdom: it’s largely wrong. Although it’s true that divorce is more common in red America, especially in the South, red America enjoys more family stability for its children than does blue America. Huh? That’s because, in today’s world, where 40 percent of children are born out of wedlock, and where children born out of wedlock are much more likely to experience family instability and single parenthood, non-marital childbearing is a bigger driver of family instability and single parenthood than is divorce. And non-marital childbearing is more common in blue America. Here’s the full story.
Family in Red and Blue America
When it comes to marriage, as I show in a new research brief at Family Studies, red counties have a clear advantage. The figure below shows that counties that gave a larger share of their vote to the Republican presidential candidate (Mitt Romney) in 2012 have a higher share of their population that is married. This is true with and without controls for region, education, race, and age at the county level. The data suggest that marriage is more likely to ground and guide adult lives, including the entry into parenthood, in red America. The red advantage in marriage, in all likelihood, flows in part from higher levels of religious participation and normative support for marriage found in more politically conservative counties.
Indeed, as the figure below indicates, red counties also have somewhat lower levels of non-marital childbearing. Again, this relationship holds up with and without county-level socio-demographic controls. Being born within marriage matters, because children who are born into a married home are much more likely to experience stable family lives than children born to unmarried couples or single parents.
Contrary to the thesis that blue America does a better job of delivering family stability to our nation’s children, the figure below shows that today’s teens are more likely to be living with their biological parents if they live in a red county. Specifically, both with and without controls for county trends in education, race, and age, teens in red counties are more likely to be living with their biological parents, compared to children living in bluer counties. To be sure: the positive link between voting Republican and family stability is only modest, but it runs directly against the conventional wisdom.
This finding is noteworthy because children raised in stable, two-parent families are more likely to avoid detours in life that can get them off track, such as a teenage pregnancy or incarceration. They are also significantly more likely to get a good education and to flourish in the contemporary labor force. Harvard economist Raj Chetty’s new research tells us that communities with more two-parent families are also more likely to foster high levels of economic mobility for poor children. David Leonhardt at The New York Times summarized it this way: “A lot of data suggests that children who grow up in intact families fare better on average than similar children who don’t.”
Now, it is true that divorce is more common in the South, a region that tilts red. As I have noted, “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 seem to have combined to make family life more fragile in the South. If the South did a better job of fostering marital stability, the red family advantage would be stronger than it is.
But this divorce disadvantage does not translate into higher levels of family instability in red America as a whole. That’s probably because non-marital childbearing, not divorce, is now the biggest engine of family instability in the United States. Here, red America’s stronger religious and normative support for marriage—manifested in higher rates of marriage and lower rates of non-marital childbearing—means that the divorce disadvantage in red America is outweighed by the fact that children are more likely to be born to a married family in more conservative counties. The bottom line: the marriage advantage in red America helps explain why children in red counties are somewhat more likely to enjoy stable families than are children in blue counties.
Education, Race, and Family Stability in America
These analyses don’t mean that other factors, such as education and race, are unimportant. As Cahn and Carbone would predict, data from the American Community Survey indicate that a higher level of education is also linked to more marriage, less non-marital childbearing, and more family stability at the county level. Teenagers in counties with lots of college-educated adults are more likely to be raised by their own married parents, because better-educated Americans are now more likely to get and stay married. And education is higher in blue counties. So, education seems to play a particularly important role in stabilizing family life in blue America.
Furthermore, one reason blue counties are more likely to have lower levels of marriage, higher levels of non-marital childbearing, and more family instability is that they also have more African Americans. As my research brief indicates, the share of African Americans in a county is linked to lower levels of marriage, higher levels of non-marital childbearing, and lower levels of family stability. Here, the cumulative effects of slavery, racism, segregation, and poverty help explain these family trends by race.
These analyses also tell us that red counties do not have an overwhelming advantage when it comes to family life. Unfortunately, only about one in two teens is part of a two-parent, biological family in most red and blue counties across America.
The Conventional Wisdom About Red Families Is Wrong
But this new research makes it very clear that the conventional wisdom about red families versus blue families is wrong. In contemporary America, red families have a modest comparative advantage when it comes to family stability for children. That’s in part, it would seem, because red America endows marriage with comparatively greater significance and power than does blue America.