May 12, 2010

Moral Traditionalism Fails to Prevent Early Childbirth and Divorce

A very interesting and illuminating article at National Journal Magazine reveals a heavy difference between “red states” and “blue states” in both divorce rate and teen parenting rates – and not in favor of those states that vote Republican and (this is huge generalization, of course) promote traditional family values. Here is the beginning of the article:

Do ‘Family Values’ Weaken Families?

If you want to find stable two-parent families, bypass Palin country and go to Pelosi territory.

by Jonathan Rauch

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Can it be? One of the oddest paradoxes of modern cultural politics may at last be resolved.

The paradox is this: Cultural conservatives revel in condemning the loose moral values and louche lifestyles of “San Francisco liberals.” But if you want to find two-parent families with stable marriages and coddled kids, your best bet is to bypass Sarah Palin country and go to Nancy Pelosi territory: the liberal, bicoastal, predominantly Democratic places that cultural conservatives love to hate.

The country’s lowest divorce rate belongs to none other than Massachusetts, the original home of same-sex marriage. Palinites might wish that Massachusetts’s enviable marital stability were an anomaly, but it is not. The pattern is robust. States that voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in both 2004 and 2008 boast lower average rates of divorce and teenage childbirth than do states that voted for the Republican in both elections. (That is using family data for 2006 and 2007, the latest available.)

Six of the seven states with the lowest divorce rates in 2007, and all seven with the lowest teen birthrates in 2006, voted blue in both elections. Six of the seven states with the highest divorce rates in 2007, and five of the seven with the highest teen birthrates, voted red. It’s as if family strictures undermine family structures.

Naomi Cahn and June Carbone — family law professors at George Washington University and the University of Missouri (Kansas City), respectively — suggest that the apparent paradox is no paradox at all. Rather, it is the natural consequence of a cultural divide that has opened wide over the past few decades and shows no sign of closing. To define the divide in a sentence: In red America, families form adults; in blue America, adults form families.

Cahn and Carbone’s important new book, Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, from Oxford University Press, is too rich with nuance to be encompassed in a short space.

The rest of the article is very interesting and definitely worth your time in reading it – the book also sounds good.

However, I want to look at one key sentence from the quote above:

In red America, families form adults; in blue America, adults form families.

As the authors explain, a lot of  teenagers and young adults get married (sometimes because they have gotten themselves pregnant – because teens CANNOT abstain from sex any more than adults can – and sometimes because they do abstain and getting married to their high school sweetheart makes sex OK in their moral worldview) and form families before they (or their brains) have reached maturity. Anyone who has done this knows that having a family makes you grow up fast, whether you like it or not. They become mature adults as a result of  dealing with family responsibilities.

This is what the authors mean by “families form adults.”

In more urban and suburban settings – the realm of the “blue states” – traditional family values, i.e., conservatism, Christianity, and their worldviews do not reign supreme. Consequently, when teens “forget” the condom and get themselves “in the family way” they have a recourse – they have an abortion. More to the point, however, they are more likely to have gotten something other than “abstinence only” sex education, so they know how to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

These kids get through their teen and early adult years without being forced into an early marriage by pregnancy or moral worldview. And again, as a cultural difference, these kids tend to come from families where education is more highly valued, so they wait until after college, and maybe even until they are established in their careers, before having families and children.

This is the meaning of “adults form families.”

Here is the perfect example:

In 2008, when news emerged that the 17-year-old daughter of the Republican vice presidential nominee was pregnant, traditionalists were reassured rather than outraged, because Bristol Palin followed the time-honored rules by announcing she would marry the father. They were kids, to be sure, but they would form a family and grow up together, as so many before them had done. Blue America, by contrast, was censorious. Bristol had committed the unforgivable sin of starting a family too young. If red and blue America seemed to be talking past one another about family values, it’s because they were.

A few stats from the article support the argument that this is not an isolated incident.

Research shows that the states (in 2007) with the lowest median age at marriage were all red (Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Utah). On the other hand, the states with the highest first-marriage age were all blue (Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island). Same deal with with the age at first childbirth – blue state Massachusetts is highest and red state Mississippi is lowest. The gap is five years (28 t0 23 respectively).

It’s easy to be condescending toward those who hold those “red state” values and to assume they deserve the higher divorce rate and high teen pregnancy rate simply because their values are not our values (or maybe because they elected GW Bush TWICE).

As much as I find their homophobia and ethnocentrism and jingoism annoying, I saw this happen to a lot of people I knew growing up. Oregon may be a blue state, but southern Oregon, where I grew up as a teenager, is very traditional – a lot of churches, ranches, farms, and strong red state values. And we had a high teen pregnancy rate.

My sister was one of those teen mothers, and the father ran like a frightened rat. I watched her struggle to raise her daughter as a single parent (before she eventually was married), with no high school diploma. I do not wish that on anyone.

I feel compassion – and sadness – but not condescension.

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