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Why Do Red States Have the Worst "Family Values"?

The "red family system" preaches early marriage and traditional gender roles -- a model no longer suited to our post-industrial economy. No wonder "red families" are falling apart.

Are conservative values voters who consider themselves pro-family more likely to divorce than their liberal counterparts?

Law professors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone had what they call their “ah-ha moment” when they started looking at how states voted in presidential elections and compared the results to social trends in those states. They found that states voting red -- presumably for socially conservative, “pro-family” candidates -- also had high divorce rates, higher than in blue states. Building on their research, Cahn and Carbone then developed theories about family formation in the U.S. and its relationship to political affiliation.

In their book Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, the authors explain that “red families” believe adulthood is forged by the responsibilities of getting married and having children early. Blue families, by contrast, defer marriage and childbirth until after they have reached adulthood, which usually follows economic and educational attainment. The reasons for the sharp divide are rooted in economic changes and personal belief systems, which both authors discussed with me recently. Their comments, culled from conversations via the telephone and e-mail, follow.

How did you get started on this area of research?

Cahn: What started us in looking at this was that as we watched the '04 election and we saw the moral values commentary unfolding, we looked at the polling and divorce statistics. So our first “ah ha” moment was looking at the correlation between divorce rates and family characteristics and how likely a state was to vote red or blue. As we probed further, we saw an amazing congruence between how a state voted and their divorce rate.

What did you find?

Cahn: It tended to be that red states had higher divorce rates, which surprised us. We quickly realized that states with low average ages of marriage could be expected to have higher divorce rates, so we next checked age.

Carbone:  We found that teen birth rates were also higher in red states, and that more sophisticated regression analyses produced a strong correlation with the 2004 vote. We also realized that factors that produce higher divorce rates, such as the age of marriage, also correlated with the red/blue divide. We were intrigued and decided to inquire further.

Can you show us how these patterns are playing out in different states?

Carbone: In Massachusetts and Connecticut, the average ages of marriage are now the highest in the country, their fertility rates are well below the American average, and they are among the five states in the country with the lowest divorce rates. Arkansas and Idaho, which are culturally very different from each other, are both poorer and much more traditional states. They have two of the lowest average ages of marriage in the country, and two of the highest rates of divorce and teen births. 

What other findings emerged in your state-by-state analysis?

Cahn: Teen birth rates are higher in red states than they are in blue states, so that was one big thing. Teen abortion rates are lower in red than in blue states, as a general matter. We also looked at statistics on the age of the mother at first child. Massachusetts has the highest at 28; Mississippi is lowest at 23.

As to red versus blue, what are some of the traits of these families, respectively?

Cahn: As we talk about them, the red family system is a traditional one that continues to preach abstinence, early marriage and more traditional gender roles. The blue family model invests in women and men and believes in delayed family formation until after young adults reach emotional and financial independence. Sexuality is viewed as a private matter.