Red vs. Blue states: Which creates a more stable family?

By W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas Zill
Courtesy of The Institute of Family Studies

When it comes to family, red states have a bad reputation. From the media to the academy, red states have acquired a reputation for talking a conservative game regarding family, but utterly failing to deliver on their old-school aspirations in the real world. The most thoughtful proponents of this view, scholars Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, have argued that the “red” family model—which discourages premarital sex, encourages younger marriage, restricts abortion access, and idealizes the male-breadwinner/female-homemaker family—is simply unworkable, and maybe even destructive, in the twenty-first century. They point to comparatively high divorce and teen pregnancy rates in many red states as one sign that the red state model has outlived its usefulness.

Cahn and Carbone argue that if more Americans followed the “blue” script of prizing sexual and economic autonomy, focusing on education and professional development in their twenties, and delaying marriage until around age 30, with kids coming after, families would be better off. More generally, they contend that the blue state family model is now better equipped, in today’s economy and culture, to provide children with the kind of stable family that is most likely to secure their welfare.

Then, a recent piece at The Upshot showing that conservative areas raise children’s likelihood of later getting married got us thinking. After all, in today’s world, where 41 percent of children are born out of wedlock, and where children born out of wedlock are much more likely to experience family instability and single parenthood, might the relative strength of marriage in red state America translate into an advantage in family stability for children growing up in red states? That is, even if red states have somewhat higher divorce rates, they might also have more children being born into married families; this, in turn, could boost red state family stability over that of blue states?

Or, as Cahn and Carbone might predict, do blue states deliver more stability than red states by stressing the importance of a newer model of family life, one that prioritizes education and delayed family formation?

The conventional wisdom among scholars about family in America suggests the red state family model has failed to deliver the stability that boosts children’s odds of thriving in today’s world. But we find that the reddest states in America are more, not less, likely to raise their children in a stable, married home, other things being equal. Yet insofar as residents of blue America prioritize education and work, and postpone family formation, in the ways that Cahn and Carbone prescribe, they too have a path towards stable, two-parent families.

Our bottom line: In understanding the confusing contours of political and family geography, it looks like both education and ideology matter. That’s why the bluest and reddest states in America register the highest levels of family stability in the nation.

For the full study with references, visit this link. 

W. Bradford Wilcox is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the co-author of “For Richer, for Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America.” He also directs the Home Economics Project at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies. Nicholas Zill is a psychologist and survey researcher who has written on indicators of family and child wellbeing for four decades. Prior to his retirement, he was the head of the Child and Family Study Area at Westat, a social science research corporation in the Washington, D.C., area.


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