Thursday, May 13, 2010

Family Values: Red States vs. Blue States

National Journal Magazine has published an essay by Jonathan Rauch that makes a lot of sense. It discusses the findings of Naomi Cahn and June Carbone in their new book Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture. Here's an excerpt from Rauch's essay:
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.

Red norms, on the other hand, create a quandary. They shun abortion (which is blue America's ultimate weapon against premature parenthood) and emphasize abstinence over contraception. But deferring sex in today's cultural environment, with its wide acceptance of premarital sex, is hard. Deferring sex and marriage until you get a college or graduate degree -- until age 23 or 25 or beyond -- is harder still. "Even the most devout overwhelmingly do not abstain until marriage," Cahn and Carbone write. . . .

The result of this red quandary, Cahn and Carbone argue, is a self-defeating backlash. Moral traditionalism fails to prevent premarital sex and early childbirth. Births precipitate more early marriages and unwed parenthood. That, in turn, increases family breakdown while reducing education and earnings.

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