August 2010

Amy DePaul


An Interview with Naomi Cahn and June Carbone

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.

Does getting married at a younger age help explain the higher divorce rate in red states?

Cahn: Teen marriages are associated with higher rates of divorce. The older you are when you get married, the less likely you are, statistically, to divorce... So when you look at age of first marriage, you see a correlation with divorce rate.

And how do you explain people getting married at younger ages in the red states?

Cahn: If you're going to preach abstinence until marriage, it's not surprising that the result will be a lower age of marriage.

Carbone: The educational levels in red states are also lower, with early marriage or childbearing often derailing education, and those who don't plan to go onto college marrying earlier.

Can you talk about some of the economic reasons for marital instability in red families?

Cahn: The red model of early marriage works really well if one breadwinner can support his family and where jobs are available and plentiful for high school grads. Unfortunately, that's not the economy we live in right now. In our economy, the more education you have, in most cases, the higher your income is going to be. It is hard to have a child and then provide the care you want and go to college to further your education. The red family model, while suited to particular times in the American economy and the American century, is not suited to needs of post-industrial economy that rewards investment in education and depends on two incomes as a way of family support.

But there are plenty of conservative working mothers, so couldn't you say red families have adjusted to the new economy?

Cahn: The red family preaches breadwinner, and there is discontent when you want to be in the traditional breadwinner model and the economy won't allow that... In a red family, you might be working just at a minimum wage or you haven't had the time to further your education. Unfortunately you're less likely to be happy.

Carbone: The most recent studies show that couples who are less educated tend to have more traditional expectations about gender roles than college grads, but they also show that where the wife is working full-time and would prefer to have more time to spend with her children or in the home, she is very unhappy and more likely to divorce. The latest surveys show that couples who experience financial stress are more likely to divorce than they were a generation ago, and almost all twenty-something couples experience financial stress.

If money helps stabilize relationships, and money comes from education, then is college the right thing for parents in every red family?

Cahn: No, a degree isn't the answer to everybody's woes. Community colleges and vocational education can help with finding better jobs.

Carbone: One problem is the lack of flexibility in the job market and health care is a big part of that. Many couples feel they must work full-time to retain benefits for their children, and these days, working class women may find they have greater opportunities for benefits than poorly educated men.

What are some exceptions to your book's finding that red families are more likely to be struggling?

Cahn: There are pockets of the country where the red family pattern is supported by community, so that red families are alive, well and thriving. I'm thinking of Mormon communities in Utah.

Carbone: In addition, some studies find that where the couples share a commitment to the same religion and attend church together, family stability improves. 

In addition to finding contradictions among red families, you also note that blue families, with their lower divorce rates, actually live pretty traditionally despite their liberal rhetoric.

Cahn: June and I played around with headlines when we were writing this book: "Who's most likely to live the red family dream?" It was the blue families. Author Andrew Cherlin has written that Americans are the most marrying and divorcing people of any country in comparison to other industrial countries. Americans are the marrying kind. Perhaps that's why even blue families, men and women who've gotten their educations, wind up getting married and staying married. That's also why gay marriage is not just a symbol of equality but also just how much respect marriage actually commands in this culture.

In looking at both family patterns, did you find any weaknesses in the blue model?

Cahn: Fertility is an issue, with age of first childbirth much higher in the blue model. Women's fertility declines dramatically in their early thirties. Combining work and family is also an issue.

Carbone: In blue areas, which tend to be more urban, more adults end up alone. While in some cases it’s a conscious choice, or a reflection of qualities that would get in the way of a good marriage, sometimes it is just sad. 

Earlier you mentioned gay marriage and in the book you look at state laws governing marriage, family and social policy. What did you find?

Cahn: Not surprisingly, states most accepting of same sex unions, whether it be civil unions or allowing gays and lesbians to get married, were all blue states. Their attitude is that sexuality is a private matter, which we associate with the blue family model which teaches tolerance as opposed to traditional values.

So states with gay marriage have lower divorce rates. Does that suggest that gay marriage hasn't hurt heterosexual marriage (which is the argument made by opponents of same-sex unions)?

Carbone: We argue in the book that same-sex marriage is likely to strengthen marriage. We believe that the primary purpose of marriage should be to promote family stability, and that stability is important for all couples with children, straight or gay. 

Any other findings on differences in approaches to law and governance?

Cahn: Red states are more likely to have more restrictive teen abortion laws, and the first states to opt out of federal abstinence-only programs [which do not teach contraception] were blue states.

Carbone: in addition, we look at lower key decisions such as those affecting custody. In red states, the courts still pay lip service to the idea that the mother’s extramarital affairs should affect parental fitness. In blue states, the courts now almost entirely reject the idea that the courts should police the parent’s sexual activity unless it has a direct effect on the child. 

How do African-Americans, who live in both red and blue states, fit into your data analysis?

Cahn: In our book, we talk about the fact that there's a third model, people who are in neither system. Black families have their own patterns, which are often left out of the debate. For example, the non-marital birth rate is higher among blacks than whites. Our next book is going to be called Family Classes and we'll talk about race and class. It was not our intent to ignore these issues in this book, and it's something we care about.

What about poor women?

Carbone: We argue in the book that the fight between red and blue is, in part, a fight to determine the dominant family model. So as the welfare reform debate indicated, the supporters of the red model want to extend marriage promotion assistance to poor women, while the blue family supporters want to increase women's control over reproduction and to assist poor women in the effort to stay in school.

Speaking of reproduction issues, your book argues for renewed focus on contraception to overcome the polarizing effect of discussing abortion.

Cahn: We'd love to change the subject from abortion to contraception. Every time someone says, "Your system [red family structure] depends on abortion," we say, "It depends on contraception." Over 90 percent of women practice contraception during their lifetime. It's an important matter to all women. Yet if you look at the rate of unplanned pregnancy, about half of all pregnancies are unplanned. And about less than half of those end up in abortion. So about one-fifth of all pregnancies wind up as abortion… The more money we put into it and education about contraception, the less likely the need for abortion. And 46 percent of women who procured abortions had not used some form of contraception in the previous month. So you could help prevent half of all pregnancies if you make contraception more available and if you make sure there is better education about it.

But social conservatives don’t want to educate young people on preventing pregnancy, on the argument that it condones premarital sex.

Cahn: Married women use contraception, and your children are healthier if you space your kids. Even if you're educating teens about contraception, you're not necessarily saying, "Tonight, use the info we've given you." You may not use this for years but it could be quite useful. The other important thing about contraception is, given the longer lag between puberty and the age of marriage, you can certainly hope for abstinence, but not all people are going to practice abstinence until marriage.

One of my friends used our book to argue for waiting until marriage -- both waiting to get married but also waiting to have sex until you get married. So I think you could teach contraception within the framework of marriage.

Carbone: As Naomi and I emphasized above, the communities that are most successful in preventing early pregnancy do not say, “Get on birth control so that you can have sex.” Instead, they separate the two. Getting on birth control becomes part of a rite of passage into adolescence that is associated with having a period. Sex comes later.

When you said, "getting on birth control" becomes a rite of passage for adolescents, did you mean "learning about birth control"?

Carbone: I did mean "getting on birth control." I was speaking to a Dutch scholar about this, and she was telling me that…when she was that age, the conventional wisdom was that once a teen got her period, the thinking was that she should be on the pill to make periods more regular and to lessen cramps. Schools emphasized the importance of birth control and the government paid for it without requiring parental consent or notification. She agreed with me that what makes contraception really effective for teens is getting on the pill before the first sexual encounter, and doing that, as a psychological matter, requires having a justification for being on birth control that does not depend on willingness to have sex… The Dutch had the lowest abortion rates in Europe, until their Christian right government changed birth control policies.

Here in the U.S. it will be interesting to see if you can engage abortion opponents in supporting greater access to contraception.

Carbone: I would be very happy if we convinced the left. Our friends [on the left] believe that no one cares about contraception because we all have it. I think they would care more if the press covered the congressman opposing contraceptive coverage for poor women or teens because they don’t want to encourage “those sluts,” as one congressman explained.

Your book seems to argue for more strategies to move red and blue families and their politics closer.

Cahn: There are lots of points of confluence between the red and blue family system: one is what's best for children.

Another thing everyone would agree on is the need to improve economy. Also supporting education: making sure that whatever family you're in, you get support for childcare and continuing education. Even some Republicans have suggested you might earn tuition credits if you stay home to care for a child. That might encourage education. Another area of confluence would be supporting marriages: teaching marriage skills and life skills, in addition to strengthening domestic violence laws and family-friendly policies in the workplace.

One conservative response to your book was articulated by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. He seemed to agree that red families face a lot of instability but said, basically, that at least the red family system doesn't solve problems through abortion. What's your response to that?

Cahn: Ross and I are scheduled to have an interview that will appear on Bloggingheadstv at 2 p.m. today. [Laughs.]

Who gets abortions? It's generally poor women who are getting abortions, not college-educated women. So if you look at who these abortion restrictions affect, they don't affect women who've achieved the blue lifestyle. Forty-two percent of women who abort have incomes below the federal poverty line.

That being said, I suppose if you could put a child up for adoption, or keep a child, and if there were an enormous amount of support and you could pursue opportunities, then that would be a different situation (and perhaps a different society). In our society abortion does seem to be an important option for backing up the blue family lifestyle.

Were you surprised that Douthat even admitted to problems on the red side of the fence?

Cahn: Douthat did a book called Grand New Party about the need to reclaim family values and acknowledges that working class families are having problems with stability. I don't think we've been surprised. June and I started our collaboration in 2001 and the idea for book came up in '04. We've been working on this a long time. We've thought through a lot of the issues.

You've mentioned the Palin family as an example of red family values, at least at the point when Bristol Palin was going to marry the father of her child. Who's the poster family for blue families?

Cahn: The Obamas are nice examples of the blue family model, the Clintons as well. They met in law school, got married, and now Chelsea's finished her education and recently was married.

What about the Gores?

Cahn: The Gores show that statistics have their limits.

Sometimes the book seems to find a lot more to like about the blue model.

Cahn: The book wasn't intended to show blue families as more successful. But if the question is which family model is better suited to new industrial economy, then the blue family model is able to invest more parental resources. We were trying not to take a position...We actually tried very hard to see the benefits and drawbacks of both systems. I think red and blue are both committed to children.

Carbone: One of the ironies is that we believe that in a less partisan world, there might be greater support for the idea that families need help. Instead, the same forces calling for more attention to “family values” also tend to oppose increases in the minimum wage, true health care reform that would separate health care from employment, more creative ways of increasing the educational attainment of young people in their twenties, and other measures that would provide a better foundation for young marriage.