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Red State Families vs. Blue State Families: The Family-Values Divide

Controversies over abortion, same-sex marriage, teen pregnancy, single parenthood, and divorce have all challenged our images of the American family. Red family, meet blue family.

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Second, change the subject from abortion to contraception. Abortion is an intrinsically divisive issue, and it has become a focal point for values conflict because it offers no middle ground. In contrast, attitudes toward contraception are on a continuum—over 95% of sexually active women will use contraception at some point in their lives. More critically, the intensity of the abortion conflict obscures the real tragedy: the United States has the highest rates of unplanned teen pregnancies in the industrialized world. Thirty percent of American girls will become pregnant before they turn 20, and 80% of the pregnancies are unplanned. Moreover, non-marital births have skyrocketed because of high rates of unplanned pregnancies for unmarried women in their early 20s, the age group least likely to have health insurance. The only way to genuinely address family values is to reconsider the terms of family formation. The dramatic story of the ’90s was a national decline in teen births, a decline most dramatic for the poorest and most-vulnerable Americans and one concentrated much more heavily in the states most committed to the availability of birth control and abortion. That decline in births occurred at the same time that teen pregnancy and abortion rates fell, and it depended on both greater abstinence and more-effective contraceptive use. Yet, the beneficial effects of these efforts never carried over to women beyond the high school years, and in the early twenty-first century, teen births have crept back up, with the largest rise for African-Americans. Commentators attribute the increase to some combination of the worsening economy (a bright future is the best contraceptive), increasing amounts of abstinence-only education (the poorer the woman, the more likely she is to receive no information about contraception before her initial sexual encounter), and less access to contraception. At the same time, the morning-after pill and nonsurgical abortion (RU-486) have blurred the line between contraception and abortion for the middle class, increasing the ease of access for those with medical care and worsening the plight of women with the least resources as abortion later during pregnancy becomes harder to secure.

If there is a middle ground in the cultural fight, it should be on the importance of moving family formation out of the teen years. Early marriage derails education and increases the likelihood of divorce. As the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy points out, young teen mothers are less likely to complete high school, and their children do not perform as well in school as do children of older parents. While abstinence reinforcement can play a useful role, few successful couples will forgo contraceptive use altogether—whether within marriage or without. Comprehensive approaches to deterring improvident childbirth, with special attention to the needs of poorer, minority, and evangelical teens, should command greater support. After all, those who succeed in avoiding unplanned births become more likely to marry, stay married, and bear children who replicate more-stable family patterns.

Third, change the subject from family to work. The changing family is part of a long-term restructuring of the interaction between work and family. Yet, family dynamics have responded to workplace needs more readily than the workplace has changed to accommodate family responsibilities. This failure to restructure the workplace to accommodate the changes in family needs affects everyone. Since the late 1980s, the largest increase in perceptions that work interferes with family involves men’s jobs. The design of full-time positions on the assumption that the worker has a full-time homemaker/spouse serves neither the interests of modern men who have assumed a larger share of childrearing responsibility, nor those of more-traditional women who may have no choice but to work to support their families.

The blue family model, which defers family formation in response to the greater demands of the modern workplace, has resulted in lower fertility rates. More family-friendly workplaces would encourage middle-class births by helping men and women feel comfortable that they can combine work and family. At the same time, the disappearance of stable blue-collar jobs for young people has undermined family formation altogether for the less-prosperous parts of society. Greater attention to the transition to adulthood, perhaps with mandatory service, more-flexible educational opportunities, a higher minimum wage and/or expansion of the earned income tax credit, and more opportunities for apprenticeships, may also pay off in terms of relationship stability and investment in children.

Culture war partisans forget that the real sexual revolution was the one made possible by the prosperity that followed World War II.  During the fifties, the number of women who began sexual activity before their 21st birthday increased from 40 to 70%, the average age of marriage fell to the lowest point in the twentieth century, and the number of brides pregnant at the altar rose to 30%, the highest level since 1800.  Since then, the changing economy has largely eliminated the well-paying jobs for men in their twenties that made early family formation workable for rich and poor alike.  The responses to the new economy have differed by race, region and class; yet, our discussion of family issues still proceeds as though the question of values is a matter of will that can be imposed on the country as a whole.

We believe that the red/blue chasm represents genuine differences in family life, but it is one that can be crossed through greater attention to practical needs and regional sensibilities.  Throughout the country, fathers spend more time with their children, mothers contribute more to family income, and same-sex couples are finding greater acceptance.  Moreover, free from the glare of partisan controversy, courts devise workable solutions to the issues posed by non-marital relationships and custody fights, and marriage proponents committed to empirical validation accept programs that have consensus appeal.   Families across the country have had to change in response to changing economic realities; we will enjoy better prospects for changing together if we focus more honestly and creatively on the challenges before us.