Book Review: Red Families v. Blue Families

One of the things I intend to use this blog for is writing short (WARNING: my idea of short is probably longer than yours) reviews of books I’m reading. For those of you who know me, I’m an avid reader, which is aided by the 45 or so minutes I spend commuting on the bus each day. In fact, when I was away from work for 12 weeks on paternity leave, my overall reading went down.

So with that said, that brings me to some thoughts on a book I finished about two weeks ago (and is still overdue, sorry Seattle Public Library): Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, written by legal scholars Naomi Cahn and June Carbone. A friend was visiting a few weeks ago and picked up this book from our dining table to comment that I read the weirdest books, and given that I have no legal background whatsoever, for me this book probably falls in that camp.

The impetus for picking the book up in the first place, however, was that I’m a new parent, at the early stages of forming a family and even though our daughter is still working on sitting on her own, I’m already thinking about what shape our family will take. What role do we want education to play in our children’s lives? What will we teach them about love and relationships? Will we encourage them to delay marriage into the early 30s, even longer than we did ourselves, so they can establish a foothold economically? Conversely, if we ever get a phone call from college announcing that they’re engaged, will we see that as a good thing or something to be, ahem, negotiated once grad school is completed and a job offer is firmly in place? What’s more important–starting a family or becoming financially independent? How you answer that question probably says a lot about what part of the country you’re from, your socioeconomic class and how you vote.

The main argument behind Red Families v. Blue Families is that economic changes over the past 40 years have created two different tracks for family formation within America, and that these tracks follow political differences in the country–the eponymous red states and blue states–very closely. The authors make clear, however, in this chicken or egg case that it’s family formation that has created the difference in our politics, rather than inherent differences in politics leading toward different types of families. (More after the jump.)

The two most important data points to determine this difference is the median age at which someone first marries and the mean age at which he or she first has children. A chart in the first chapter makes this clear. In 2007 the five states with the lowest median age for marriage were Utah, Idaho, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas. The five states at the other end of the spectrum were Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey. The difference between Idaho (women were 22.8 on average at marriage, men were 25.2) and Massachusetts (28.5 for women and 29.9 for men) is fairly stark. You also may notice that the difference in age between men and women is much closer in Massachusetts (more on that later). Similarly, first children come much earlier, statistically speaking, for women in red states. While the median age nationwide was 25.0, that drops to 22.6 for Mississippi, which is closely followed by Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana. The same five Northeastern blue states are at the upper ranks, led by Massachusetts at 27.7. You also might notice that in the leading red states the birth of the first child coincides with marriage, either directly before or directly after; in blue states it lags by a few years.

So what this means is that we in America have developed two different tracks for marriage and children, as well as their messier aspects such as teen pregnancy, abortions and divorce. As discussed earlier, these two tracks correspond to current political voting patterns, though I’m certain that those of us in blue states know plenty of folks on the “red family track” and vice versa.

The blue track emphasizes an investment in education along with delaying childbearing and family formation in order to establish financial independence. In the blue world, education and the possibility of a thriving career is seen as equally attainable by both men and women. The red track emphasizes the nuclear family as the cornerstone of the social order and, as such, strongly encourages early marriage and childbearing. In the red world, the ideal of men acting as primary breadwinner and women playing the role of homemaker remains intact, but in reality both genders often find that they need to work to make ends’ meet; regardless, traditional gender roles remain prominent.

And while beliefs about premarital sexuality are often different in these two worlds, in practice premarital sex is equally present in both (96% of people engage in premarital sex at some point). What this means is that people in the blue track rely heavily on contraception (and abortion as an acceptable but by no means desirable fallback) to achieve goals of education and financial independence ahead of family formation; in red states premarital sex is more likely to lead to pregnancy and, thus, early marriage, which occurs at higher rates in these states. Divorce is also more likely for those who marry young or are economically vulnerable; the lowest divorce rate in the country is not in those states whose cultures decry the fall of traditional marriage but in blue Massachusetts. And increasingly, those in red states who become pregnant at a young age forgo marriage altogether due to decreased economic prospects for men.

Now this is where things get interesting. It hasn’t always been this way. If you turn the clock back to 1960, there was essentially no discernible difference nationwide when men and women first married and when women bore their first child. In 1960, the average woman married by age 20 and had children soon thereafter. Red states have followed a fairly similar model, with these median ages only inching up by about 2 years, but the top blue states have shifted these life events from the late teens or early 20s well into the late 20s and early 30s. And a lot can happen in those intervening years, namely college, graduate school and the early years of a professional-track career. Somewhere along the line, something happened that set these two parts of the country on distinctly different tracks.

So what happened? Like many things, the answer is found by following the money. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, a new economy began to emerge as the industrial economy that had been the basis of American society since the mid-1800s gave way to an economy based on information and technology. With more jobs moving from the factory to the office park, suddenly the number of jobs favoring men began to decline, creating new opportunities for women who could invest in education and an incentive for families to invest equally in the education of both their daughters and their sons. At around the same time, the pill became a widely available method of birth control, which allowed women to separate sexuality from reproduction, which in turn means that they could begin investing in education–and delaying family formation–with the expectation that it would actually pay off. Suddenly a new path began to emerge for women in which they could begin the process (which it’s worth noting still took decades) of achieving rough parity in the workplace. In turn, separating sexuality from reproduction meant that women could begin making choices and trade-offs: Women who followed this path gained economic security, delayed marriage and, in doing so, often had a smaller amount of children–in whom more could be invested–and reduced the likelihood of divorce, which is more likely to affect the economically vulnerable and those who married young.

And the geography? As far as I can see, both from the book and from history, these changes took hold more effortlessly in regions of the country that helped foster an information economy: the urban Northeast with its strong tradition of elite universities and industries like finance, publishing, technology and government, and the West Coast with the entertainment and technology industries, the latter of which was aided by proximity to researchers at Stanford and UC Berkeley. Regions with a stronger agricultural or industrial economy have fallen behind. And as these trends took place on the coasts, it became a self-reinforcing phenomenon: Gains in gender equality in the workplace translated to more gains economically in these regions, which encouraged subsequent generations to make the trade-off of investment in education over early family formation, yielding smaller families with a greater net worth and lower incidences of divorce.

The irony in this is that among those in the blue track, marriages are more likely to last than for those in the red track, even though the culture of blue states is less outwardly committed to the ideal of marriage. In public, blue families have become open-minded as to what path their children can follow, but in private they encourage children to invest in education and to delay marriage and childbearing, which often results in healthy marriages. Gender equality is also promoted as a foundation for marriage, and the statistics bear that out: Blue marriages are more likely to feature men and women who are closer in age. In the red track, public celebration of the institution of marriage frequently results in the more economically vulnerable rushing into it following a pregnancy–think the story of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston, whose shortlived decision to marry was celebrated–but with less likelihood of success. The authors also note the phenomenon of many men in red communities, whose economic options have steadily decreased into comparison to rising opportunities for women, avoiding marriage altogether simply because they lack the financial stability viewed as necessary to make the jump. For men and women who have pursued the educations necessary to compete in a knowledge economy, marriage may come later but without the same set of hurdles faced by their red counterparts.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that this trend followed a similar change in pattern that occurred during the onset of the industrial economy. Study of marriage and birth records reveals that fully 30% of marriages in 1800 were shotgun weddings. This began to change in the mid-1800s as the industrial economy brought about a need for a professional class of managers, which led more men to pursue educations and delay families. When they married, they typically married younger women, among whom an emphasis on purity and a stronger moral code made them better catches for the newly minted managerial class. By 1860, the percentage of shotgun weddings had dropped to 10%.

The last half of the twentieth century saw a similar change unfold, but as we’ve seen, to date it has left a sizable percentage of the country behind. While those on the blue track have largely adopted the new model–and with it have lower rates for teen pregnancy, birth, marriage, divorce–those on the red track have stuck to a traditional model as its economic foundation has crumbled, becoming less equipped to succeed in a world that equally values male and female employment.

2008 electoral map by county, showing the country's real red-blue divide

Because Red Families v. Blue Families is written by two legal scholars, the book is about far more than this demographic and moral transition, though that is precisely what captivated my attention the most as an everyday reader (and, thus, will predominate this review). Having diagnosed the cultural differences between red states and blue states, the authors look at public policy and family law in both states in search of shared values that will encourage an improved dialogue on issues such as abortion, birth control, divorce, same-sex marriage and family leave laws.

I won’t treat all of these at length, since I’ve clearly spent most of my verbosity outlining the cultural differences between blue and red. This section of the book, however, is where the authors make their pivot from diagnosis to prescription, focusing on the search for common ground. They note that in both red states and blue states, both cultures emphasize the importance of personal responsibility but equate it with very different lifestyles: achieving maturity before having children in blue states and entering into marriage, especially in response to an early pregnancy, in red states. The authors argue that marriage, when coupled with a stable economic foundation, is ideal for raising children; both red and blue states, then, can agree on not only encouraging commitment and marriage itself but focusing on how to make it work successfully, what they term pursuing “relationship quality based on shared values and mutual respect.” Elsewhere they look to solve the abortion debate by emphasizing contraception; they look to expanding the Family Medical Leave Act–and making it more generous and widespread–so that both men and women can balance building families with careers, and at an earlier age if they so choose. For the authors “abstinence only” sex education only furthers the divide between red and blue.

The authors do show their colors, however, as blue state academics. While they try to maintain a neutral balance earlier in the book, it soon becomes clear that they see traditional views toward marriage and family as ideals that can simply no longer be sustained in a global information economy. As a resident of one of the country’s most blue cities (and one of that city’s most blue neighborhoods, for that manner), I share their prejudice that only a move toward more flexible family models will help make marriage a successful foundation in this new world. I write that as a late 20-something husband and father who just completed 12 weeks of FMLA leave as a stay-at-home parent while my wife went back to work; for us that type of public policy, as limited as it is compared to other Western countries, helps make the blue state model of family possible.

I question, however, whether red state intellectuals share this assumption. Reviewing Red Families v. Blue Families for the New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat agrees with numerous aspects of the book, including the difficulties facing the underclass (white, black and Hispanic) that has been brought on by diverging economic prospects. He points to the difference in abortion rates–New York’s is twice that of Texas–as an underlying cause of the two models; blue states have succeeded in delaying marriage and children by relying on abortion, he argues. In turn, the messier statistics of the red family model may not look so bad.

Douthat’s view shows how difficult it will be to bridge the red and blue divide. Thirty percent of women of reproductive age (the very underclass that Douthat notes) obtained 57% of the abortions in 2000. So are blue families really building their success on the back of abortion when both states’ conceptions of family–including gender roles and the use of contraception–begin so differently? Clearly, moving beyond the separate paradigms of red and blue family will be a difficult project, and one that won’t be solved by both parties relying on their usual bogeyman–with conservatives decrying abortion and liberals pointing to abstinence only sex education.

Regardless, until the country returns to having common family systems and equal economic prospects, it’s quite unlikely that we’ll move past a cultural divide in which our disagreements over social values dictate electoral results and with it the future of the country. The world is changing dramatically; one need only look to the rise of China, India and Brazil to see that. For America to compete in the twenty-first century on a global scale, we’ll need the full country moving in lockstep on the issues that will dictate our future success–economic, political and military–rather than fighting the last century’s war over the makeup of our families.

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