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  • Jobs paying a male family wage have disappeared outside of relatively elite circles, and employment instability destabilizes parenting relationships for a complex set of reasons. Tweet This
  • The true test of Red vs. Blue systems should be the effectiveness of state policies on the well-being of all children in the state. Tweet This

Since we published Red Families v. Blue Families in 2010, we have been locked into an exchange of Red State versus Blue State bragging rights: which system works better in providing for today’s families? The latest round came with Nick Kristof’s thoughtful and carefully nuanced column in The New York Times, “Blue States Practice the Family Values Red States Preach,” which prompted a considered and thorough response from Brad Wilcox and Vijay Menon in Politico. Wilcox and Menon argue that a “state-based argument obscures more than it illuminates about the links between partisanship and family life for ordinary families in America.” They then use an empirical analysis of county-level data to argue that “counties that lean Republican across the country as a whole have more marriage, less nonmarital childbearing, and more family stability than counties that lean Democratic.”

We are pleased that our book has helped frame the discussion about contemporary family values, and we are often tempted to engage in the debate about which system is better. An empirical war, however, obscures both what we attempted to accomplish and what we (and Kristof) feel the ongoing family debate should be about. We note at the outset that we are law professors, not sociologists. We chose the state rather than the country level for our analysis because it is the state that determines family law and policy. At the time we wrote, we did so to emphasize two points. Those points remain critical to family policy today.

The first explores the contemporary role of what we called the “blue” family system. The blue system had been characterized as a system of license, with many blaming the sexual revolution and the women’s movement for increasing family instability, or decrying the blue system as too preoccupied with the partners’ self-fulfillment. We wrote to emphasize instead that this new system involved a remaking of family norms to deal with the circumstances of the information economy that rewarded women’s workforce participation and made confining mothers to the home for their entire adult lives stultifying and wasteful. The new system, instead, encouraged investment in women’s as well as men’s earning capacity, and changed the appropriate time for family formation to the point where both partners had reached emotional maturity and financial independence. Yes, it does involve individual self-definition and a search for a partner who shares the same values, but no, it is not about indulgence. Instead, it is about allowing both men and women to invest in education and jobs, and to acquire the maturity that allows a couple to weather moves, layoffs, and work and family pressures. The true test, however, is not whether Red or Blue elites do better; each does better than the working class in every state. The question is whether they offer a system that can address the needs of those left behind.

This conclusion—that what was happening to the family was a sign of fundamental changes in economic organization that required adaptation—leads to our second point. Mid-twentieth century America provided a historically remarkable period of national convergence in family law and family trends; our book sought to document the unraveling of that system as the states reverted to the historical norms that tied family law and family policies to diverging cultural values. Over the course of American history, for example, the states have always differed on divorce. Yet, divorce liberalization swept the country between 1965 and 1985, with every state revising its divorce laws to make them at least somewhat easier to access during this period. Indeed, in 1970, Congress funded federal birth control efforts, with the bill garnering unanimous support in the Senate, only 32 no votes in the House, and signed into law by President Richard Nixon. Since then, however, the states have moved apart not just in terms of family form (including differences in the age of marriage, overall fertility, and teen birth and divorce rates), but in terms of the laws and policies that determine the availability of comprehensive sex education, birth control, abortion and support for children. If the net effect is that wealthier (and more Republican) counties thrive while poorer (and more Democratic) counties fall farther behind, it would be an indictment of the system in any state.

The challenge for both systems is how to deal with the realities that jobs paying a male family wage have disappeared outside of relatively elite circles, and that employment instability destabilizes parenting relationships for a complex set of reasons. The test for the aspiring middle class accordingly becomes not just whether marriages last but whether the family system facilities the investment in human capital necessary to sustain employment in an increasingly competitive economy. The test for the working class is whether it can muster the resources for family life at all in an increasingly unequal society

In these circumstances, both liberal and conservative advocates recognize that employment and family stability are related, and relationship stability depends not just on individual virtue but community support. In poor African-American communities, for example, the combination of gender ratios (with women outnumbering men in absolute numbers), mass incarceration policies that further depress the availability of marriageable men, and high levels of unemployment and domestic violence make exclusive emphasis on marriage, without attention to jobs or other forms of community rebuilding, unrealistic. Indeed, an exclusive emphasis on marriage has the potential to make inequality worse—even if the policies benefit those who buy into them. Those who can successfully find the right partner are becoming increasingly different in a variety of tangible and intangible ways from those who cannot. Restricting support, whether in the form of community approbation or societal assistance, to those who marry is, in our view, guaranteed to increase societal inequality. Those who marry are more likely to enjoy access to the church, community and extended family networks that provide access to increasingly hard-to-find good jobs, well-run schools, and a safety net to get through hard times. Working-class communities whose fortunes have declined also see a drop in church attendance, more destructive communities, and fraying family networks. The causal arrows run in both directions, and marriage-focused policies have the potential to entrench societal disadvantages.

One study, for example, found that “communities with large concentrations of conservative Protestants actually produce higher divorce rates than others, both because conservative Protestants themselves exhibit higher divorce risk and because individuals in communities dominated by conservative Protestants face higher divorce risks.” Wilcox’s response to the study noted that nominal, rather than active, conservative Protestants drove the study results, with those Protestants attending church regularly having lower divorce rates, and nominal Protestants with less church attendance having higher divorce rates than national norms. The question, however, is why these results diverge within the same community. The original study authors suggest that, while multiple factors may be at play, the presence of a large group of conservative Protestants tends to be associated with family formation factors such as a lower average age of marriage for the community as a whole. Thus, even if active religious participation served as a protective factor for those who regularly attend church, the lower age of marriage could increase the divorce risk for others without the same level of community or extended family support.

The most dramatic example of the consequences of traditional values implemented as public policy involves the relationship between the availability of contraception and the prevalence of teen births. The United States has much higher rates of unintended pregnancy than other developed countries, and as cultural differences grew in the period between the early 1990s and the Great Recession, so, too, did class-based differences in the rates. The well-off cut their unintended pregnancy rates in half, while the poor saw their rates dramatically increase. In 2011, even as the differences finally began to narrow, women whose incomes fell below the federal poverty line still had an unintended pregnancy rate more than five times the rate of wealthier women. Unintended pregnancy accounts for almost all teen births, and marriage is not a reliable answer, as the relationships triggered by an unintended pregnancy are much less likely to endure. What does work is subsidized access to the most effective forms of birth control.  Those “at high risk of unintended pregnancy who had free access to and used highly effective methods of contraception had much lower rates of unintended pregnancy than did those who used other methods.” Since the Great Recession, teen births have plummeted, due to a combination of economic changes, the decline in immigration from Latin America, less sex in the early-to-mid teen years, and more effective contraceptive use. Preventing those births has produced the first increase in the percentage of births within marriage in years, and an even more substantial decline in births to single (as opposed to cohabiting) mothers.

The test of Red and Blue systems should not be how well they work for those who are already successful. Nor should it depend on how each group votes. Changing the point of comparison from the state level to the county level changes the focus from the effects of state-level laws and policies to the degree to which people choose to live in communities of the like-minded. The true test should be the effectiveness of state policies on the well-being of all children in the state. If the net effect of marriage promotion policies is to take off the table policies such as universal access to contraception and health care that have a proven benefit for the neediest families, the system is a public policy disaster, regardless of how well it works for those who subscribe to it.

June Carbone is the Robina Chair of Law, Science, and Technology at the University of Minnesota Law School.  Naomi Cahn is the Harold H. Greene Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School.  

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.