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Opinion

High divorce rates and teen pregnancy are worse in conservative states than liberal states

But moral panic won't help lower divorce rates and teen pregnancy in conservative states; education will.

By Naomi Cahn and June CarboneStaff Writer / March 12, 2010



Washington; and Kansas City, Mo.

Ask most people about the differences between families who live in “red” (conservative) states and “blue” (liberal) states, and you’ll hear a common refrain: Massachusetts and California are hotbeds of divorce and teen pregnancy, while Nebraska and Texas are havens of virtue and stability.

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The reality is quite different. And the evidence should force all of us – conservative and liberal alike – to think carefully about the policies we set to help American families thrive in the 21st century.

According to a new federal study, women with a college education are much more likely to be married than are women who have never graduated from high school. And men and women who married after the age of 25 have lower divorce rates than couples who were married at younger ages.

We could have predicted these results. The US family system, which once differed little by class or region, has become a marker of race, culture, and religion. A new “blue” family paradigm has handsomely rewarded those who invest in women’s as well as men’s education and defer childbearing until the couple is better established. These families, concentrated in urban areas and the coasts, have seen their divorce rates fall back to the level of the 1960s, incomes rise, and nonmarital births remain rare. With later marriage has also come greater stability and less divorce.

Societal support for high school sweethearts who want to tie the knot at graduation or for shotgun weddings – where the bride is accidentally pregnant – no longer exists.

Difficulties in the “red” world, meanwhile, have grown worse. Traditionalists continue to advocate abstinence until marriage and bans on abortion. They’ve said an emphatic “no” to the practices that have made the new “blue” system workable.

Yet, paradoxically, as sociologist Brad Wilcox reports, evangelical Protestant teens have sex at slightly earlier ages on average than their nonevangelical peers (respectively, 16.38 years old versus 16.52 years old), evangelical Protestant couples are also slightly more likely to divorce than nonevangelical couples, and evangelical mothers are actually more likely to work full time outside the home than their nonevangelical peers.

While the devout who make traditional marriages work have happy stable lives, economic circumstances have made it harder to find matches that support gendered family roles and to get marginal couples through family tensions.

Sociologist Paul Amato concludes that among the marriages least likely to last are those in which women who would prefer homemaking roles end up working outside of the home much more than they expected because of the husband’s inability to support the family.

These factors reflect class and cultural differences, but all of our research suggests that the great recession is likely to make things worse. The hallmark of what we have termed the blue family paradigm is training for autonomy.

With a more extended transition to adulthood, better educated youth also need greater flexibility – to navigate their developing sexuality; to switch jobs, cities, and specialties; and to renegotiate family and career responsibilities. In hard times, dual careers provide a cushion, and flexibility about gender and work roles makes it easier to trade off child care and employment.

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