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The Ugly Aspect Of The Blue State Family Model

Both red state and blue state family models have positive and negative aspects. In the blue states, marriage is typically delayed; it has a more egalitarian approach (women in breadwinning positions, more participation in childrearing from the husbands); and as a result–the divorce rate is low. The New York Times’ Ross Douthat has explored this cultural landscape of marriage and economics in his piece, where he often points to the progressive masses that they haven’t truly won the redefining of marriage in post-sexual revolution America just yet.


Yet, the Blue Family model also has some rather disturbing attributes that are linked to its success; we’ll get to that in a second. For starters, while most liberals cite the Deep South to highlight the flaws of the red state family’s model–most social indicators are quite poor–there are different groupings of red state models (via the UpShot’s David Leonhardt):

The researchers Naomi Cahn and June Carbone have made the case for liberal attitudes, in their 2010 book, “Red Families v. Blue Families.”

But two other researchers — W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas Zill, whose data on two-parent families inspired my column — take a different tack.

...if conservative states took a different attitude toward education — and invested more in it, as liberal states do — they would probably have higher incomes and more two-parent families. College graduates tend to marry and stay married. It’s a virtuous (or vicious) cycle, in which income, education and two-parent families all feed on one another. They’re all both cause and effect.

But even if I wouldn’t go as far as Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Zill, I think they’ve made an important contribution to the discussion about family structure. Blue states are better at keeping families together than red states, but the gap is neither as large nor as uniform as some of the conventional wisdom suggests.

For one thing, the higher divorce rates in red states are counteracted by the greater likelihood of marrying in red states. Conservative areas seem to put a higher cultural value on marriage (well, at least on opposite-sex marriage) than liberal areas do. According to Pew, four of the five states with the greatest share of currently married adults lean Republican — Idaho, Kansas, Utah and Nebraska — with the one exception being purplish Iowa.

The red states of the Deep South really do look worse by almost every social metric than the country as a whole, including income, life expectancy, educational attainment and family structure. This gap is not simply a racial gap, as some readers have suggested. Whites in the Deep South also tend to struggle, relative to whites elsewhere.

The other group of red states — in the Great Plains and Mountain West — are faring considerably better. Their educational attainment is closer to average. So are their incomes. (In Utah and Wyoming, incomes are above average.) The more northern and western red states are among the leaders in children growing up with both of their parents.

That’s why Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Zill are able to argue that there is both a blue-state model and a red-state model for family stability. The blue-state model hinges on education, prosperity and the factors that Ms. Cahn and Ms. Carbone discuss. The red-state model depends on emphasizing the importance of marriage — and on states avoiding the depths of the education and income distribution.


Now, the reason liberals say the success of the Blue Family model– the college-educated, economically more prosperous folks with low divorce rates–isn’t trickling down into the working class subset is due to traditional norms and rigid gender roles. Yet, Douthat takes the progressive preconceptions of their model, and took it to the woodshed last December:

…the idea that progressive attitudes can save working-class marriages also has some real problems. First, it underestimates the effective social conservatism of the upper-class model of family life — the resilience of traditional gender roles in work and child rearing, the continued role of religion in stabilizing well-educated family life, and the conservative messages encoded even in the most progressive education.

Notwithstanding their more egalitarian attitudes, for instance, college-educated households still tend to have male primary breadwinners: As the University of Virginia’s Brad Wilcox points out, college-educated husbands and fathers earn about 70 percent of their family’s income on average, about the same percentage as working-class married couples.

The college-educated are also now more likely to attend church than other Americans, and are much less likely to cohabit before marriage than couples without a high school degree. And despite a rhetorical emphasis on Emersonian self-reliance, children reared and educated in the American meritocracy arguably learn a different sort of lesson — the hypersupervised caution of what my colleague David Brooks once dubbed “the organization kid.”

Meanwhile, as cohabitation and churchgoing trends suggest, many working-class Americans — men very much included — have gone further in embracing progressive models of identity and behavior than many realize, and reaped relatively little reward for that embrace.


Douthat revisited this issue in March writing that the liberal consensus on family and community, writing that the left still thinks “it’s unchecked capitalism and Republican stinginess, not the sexual revolution, that has devastated working-class society over the last few decades. Fight poverty, redistribute wealth, and you’ll revive family and community — it’s as simple as that.”

Well, the problem is that the working class has gotten richer since the Reagan administration:

Between 1979 and 2010, for instance, the average after-tax income for the poorest quintile of American households rose from $14,800 to $19,200; for the second-poorest quintile, it rose from $29,900 to $39,100.

Meanwhile, per-person antipoverty spending at the state and federal level increased sixfold between 1968 and 2008 — and that’s excluding Medicare, unemployment benefits and Social Security. Despite some conservative skepticism, this spending did reduce the poverty rate (though probably more so after welfare reform). One plausible estimate suggests the rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 15 percent in 2012, and child poverty fell as well.

These trends simply do not match the left-wing depiction of a working class devastated by Reaganomics.

Now, the ugly part of the blue state model revolves around abortion. In 2010, Douthat acknowledges that the red state family model certainly isn’t perfect–and has its faults–but at least it  doesn’t try to make abortion a critical element in making is a success or failure [emphasis mine]:


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.

Overall, both pieces emphasize the positives and negatives of the blue and red state models. Liberals don’t divorce often (good), but their rates of abortion are high (awful). Conservatives meanwhile place an emphasis on marriage (good), but teen births and divorces are high (awful). Yet, the red state family structures from the Great Plains and the West tend to be a bit more stable; remember, we’re not monolithic beings.


This is an ongoing debate, though I’m sure there are more than a few progressives aimed at ending this discussion since the tenets of their model are less than shaky when its scrutinized with data.

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