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 , Staff Writer

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.

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.

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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.

Hard times, however, also increase calls for a return to more fixed and traditional values. The fact that traditional families are flailing often persuades them that a return to traditional values is that much more critical. In today’s world, however, almost all of the traditional nostrums have proved counterproductive.

Missing from this debate is recognition of the bankruptcy of traditionalist family values as policy for the postindustrial era. We are entirely sympathetic with those inclined to lock up their daughters from puberty until marriage, but we do recognize that the societies abroad most insistent on policing women’s virtue are locked into cycles of poverty.

In the United States, states that emphasize abstinence-only education, limit public subsidies of contraception, restrict access to abortion – and, yes, oppose gay marriage – have higher teen birth and divorce rates.

Yet the failure of the family values movement simply produces another round of moral panic and calls for more draconian restrictions. The most destructive have been those that marginalize the next generation. The latest studies show that as the economy has gone south, teen and nonmarital births and abortions have all increased. This indicates that contraception has become less available and pregnant women more desperate about their futures. Employment figures also demonstrate that male employment has fallen even further than female employment, making youthful weddings that much riskier.

The solution? As we outline in great detail in our book “Red Families v. Blue Families,” there are three critical steps we can take: (1) promote access to contraception – within marriage as well as outside it; (2) develop a greater ability to combine not only work and family, but family and education; and (3) make sure the next generation stays in school, learns the skills to be employed, and cultivates values that can adapt to the future.

Naomi Cahn is the John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School, and a senior fellow at the Donaldson Adoption Institute. June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. They are coauthors of “Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture.”

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