It’s fairly common for advocates of more liberal social policies to point out that “red states” tend to have higher rates of divorce, teen pregnancy, etc than “blue states”. This is taken to suggest that, however much conservatives may go on about “family values”, it is actually more liberal social values which are best for families. Ross Douthat does a good job of addressing this mentality in his column from last Sunday, in which he takes a closer look at some of these “family values” statistics.
Today, couples with college and (especially) graduate degrees tend to cohabit early and marry late, delaying childbirth and raising smaller families than their parents, while enjoying low divorce rates and bearing relatively few children out of wedlock.
For the rest of the country, this comfortable equilibrium remains out of reach. In the underclass (black, white and Hispanic alike), intact families are now an endangered species. For middle America, the ideal of the two-parent family endures, but the reality is much more chaotic: early marriages coexist with frequent divorces, and the out-of-wedlock birth rate keeps inching upward.
When it comes to drawing lessons from this story, though, the agreement between liberals and conservatives ends. The right tends to emphasize what’s been lost, arguing that most Americans — especially the poor and working-class — would benefit from a stronger link between sex, marriage and procreation. The left argues that the revolution just hasn’t been completed yet: it’s the right-wing backlash against abortion, contraception and sex education that’s preventing downscale Americans from attaining the new upper-middle-class stability, and reaping its social and economic benefits.
Conservative states may have more teen births and more divorces, but liberal states have many more abortions.
Liberals sometimes argue that their preferred approach to family life reduces the need for abortion. In reality, it may depend on abortion to succeed. The teen pregnancy rate in blue Connecticut, for instance, is roughly identical to the teen pregnancy rate in red Montana. But in Connecticut, those pregnancies are half as likely to be carried to term. Over all, the abortion rate is twice as high in New York as in Texas and three times as high in Massachusetts as in Utah.
So it isn’t just contraception that delays childbearing in liberal states, and it isn’t just a foolish devotion to abstinence education that leads to teen births and hasty marriages in conservative America. It’s also a matter of how plausible an option abortion seems, both morally and practically, depending on who and where you are.
Whether it’s attainable for most Americans or not, the “blue family” model clearly works: it leads to marital success and material prosperity, and it’s well suited to our mobile, globalized society.
By comparison, the “red family” model can look dysfunctional — an uneasy mix of rigor and permissiveness, whose ideals don’t always match up with the facts of contemporary life.
But it reflects something else as well: an attempt, however compromised, to navigate post-sexual revolution America without relying on abortion.
On additional point which Douthat does not draw out is that the high divorce rates in red states are closely related to the fact that marriage continues to be fairly common in these states. For instance, the Massachusetts divorce rate has hovered around a low 2.2 from 1990 through 2007, while Alabama had a divorce rate of 6.1 in 1990 which was still 4.6 (more than twice MA’s rate) in 2007. However the marriage rate in Massachusetts was 7.9 in 1990 and declined to 5.9 by 2007, while Alabama’s marriage rate only declined from 10.6 to 9.0 during the same time period. Obviously, if you never get married int he first place, you can’t get divorced. The fact that increasing numbers of Massachusetts residents are simply not getting married does not necessarily speak to the strength of the “blue state” approach to marriage. [source data]