About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

#74 - Red Families v. Blue Families

Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Summary: "Red Families v. Blue Familieseared for the post-industrial economy. Rooted in the urban middle class, the coasts and the 'blue states' in the last three presidential elections, the Blue Family Paradigm emphasizes the importance of women's as well as men's workforce participation, egalitarian gender roles, and the delay of family formation until both parents are emotionally and financially ready. By contrast, the Red Family Paradigm -- associated with the Bible Belt, the mountain west, and rural America -- rejects these new family norms, viewing the change in moral and sexual values as a crisis. In this world, the prospect of teen childbirth is the necessary deterrent to premarital sex, marriage is a sacred undertaking between a man and a woman, and divorce is society's greatest moral challenge. Yet the changing economy is rapidly eliminating the stable, blue collar jobs that have historically supported young families, and early marriage and childbearing derail the education needed to prosper. The result is that the areas of the country most committed to traditional values have the highest divorce and teen pregnancy rates, fueling greater calls to reinstill traditional values. Featuring the groundbreaking research first hailed in The New Yorker, this penetrating book will transform our understanding of contemporary American culture and law. The authors show how the Red-Blue divide goes much deeper than this value system conflict -- the Red States have increasingly said 'no' to Blue State legal norms, and as a result, family law has been rent in two. The authors close with a consideration of where these different family systems still overlap, and suggest solutions that permit rebuilding support for both types of families in changing economic circumstances. Incorporating results from the 2008 election, Red Families v. Blue Families will reshape the debate surrounding the culture wars and the emergence of red and blue America."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction
Part 1: Family Maps
  • 1. Moral Demography
  • 2. Sexual History
  • 3. The Age of Division
  • 4. Personality, Politics, and Religion
Part 2: The Legal Map
  • 5. Contraception: Securing the Pathways to Blue Family Life
  • 6. Abortion, Law and the Cognitive Map
  • 7. The Irrationality of Adolescence: What the Adults Are Really Fighting Over
  • 8. The Marrying Laws
  • 9. Custody and Compromise
Part 3: The Map to the Future
  • 10. Marriage Advice in Shades of Pink
  • 11. Making Ready for Baby: Painting the Nursery Sky Blue
  • 12. Work and Family: Retooling the Foundation in Deep Purple
  • Conclusion
My Take: Some interesting ideas and a reasonably even-handed presentation, but overall, far too oversimplified to hold water. The authors' thesis, and what makes it problematic, are evident in the first two pages of the introduction:
"Families are on the front lines of the culture wars. Controversies over abortion, same-sex marriage, teen pregnancy, single parenthood, and divorce have all challenged our images of the American family. Some Americans seek a return to the 'mom, dad, and apple pie' family of the 1950s, while others embrace all of our families, including single mothers, gay and lesbian parents, and cohabiting couples. ... [T]he new information economy is transforming the family -- and doing so in ways that create a crisis for marriage-based communities across the country.

"The 'blue families of our title are on one side of the cultural controversy. These families have reaped the handsome rewards available to the well-educated middle class who are able to invest in both their daughters' and sons' earning potential. Their children defer family formation until both partners reach emotional maturity and financial independence. Blue family champions celebrate the commitment to equality that makes companionate relationships possible and the sexual freedom that allows women to fully participate in society. Those who have embraced the blue family model have low divorce rates, relatively few teen births, and good incomes. Yet the ability to realize the advantages of the new blue family system appears to be very much a class-based affair. Women who graduate from college are the only women in American society whose marriage rates have increased, and they and their partners form the group whose divorce rates have most appreciably declined.

"The terms of the successful blue family order -- embrace the pill, encourage education, and accept sexuality as a matter of private choice -- are a direct affront to the 'red families' of our title and to social conservatives who see their families in peril. Driven by religious teachings about sin and guilt, and based in communities whose social life centers around married couples with children, the red family paradigm continues to celebrate the unity of sex, marriage, and procreation. Red family champions correctly point out that the growing numbers of single-parent families threaten the well-being of the next generation, and they accurately observe that greater male fidelity and female 'virtue' strengthen relationships. Yet, red regions of the country have higher teen pregnancy rates, more shotgun marriages, and lower average ages at marriage and first birth. What the red family paradigm has not acknowledged is that the changing economy has undermined the path from abstinence through courtship to marriage. As a result. abstinence into the mid-20s is unrealistic, shotgun marriage correspond with escalating divorce rates, and early marriages, whether prompted by love or necessity, often founder on the economic realities of the modern economy, which disproportionately rewards investment in higher education. Efforts to insist on a return to traditional pieties thus inevitably clash with the structure of the modern economy and produce recurring cries of moral crisis."

So there's the argument in a nutshell. On the surface, it's an intriguing idea: that "[t]he biggest differences between red and blue families center on age: age at marriage and age at first birth," and that "[w]hat happens during the teen years establishes the paths to adulthood. If teens postpone their assumption of adult roles, such as parenting or leaving school, until their mid-20s, they invest more in education, acquire independence, and learn how to navigate in the world before they marry. Conversely, those who marry before they turn 21 and have children soon after are likely to bear more children, interrupt their educations, and negotiate the terms of adulthood within a more fragile relationship." And I don't argue with the statistics that show the highest teen birth and marriage rates to be in solidly red states, and the lowest in consistently blue ones. (I'm not sure Cahn and Carbone's approach -- they look at the most extreme 5 states on either end of several distributions -- is an altogether valid way to draw conclusions about states in the middle and/or smaller geopolitical entities, though that's not my biggest quibble with the book.)

I do think, though, that reducing most or all of the red/ blue divide to "red families marry and have kids young, blue families wait" is grossly oversimplified. Might there be some nugget of truth here, or at least something worth further study? Sure, but this is still only part of the story at best. What about the blue collar, organized labor strain of blue families -- admittedly, there are far fewer of them than there were a generation ago, but they're still out there? Or the upper middle class, "prosperity gospel" red families? Heck, what about the complicated relationship between race and political affiliation; in particular, African-Americans are overrepresented in lower income ranges and underrepresented at higher educational levels, but still disproportionately "blue" voters. While the authors touch upon race briefly, it's almost presented as an inconvenience: well, the highest and lowest teen and nonmarital birth rates don't quite fit our red state-blue state split here, but that's because these states have high minority populations and minorities' rates are different anyway.

This isn't to say that I found Red Families v. Blue Families completely without merit. The overview of American attitudes and laws around sexual behavior, contraception, abortion, and marriage was concise and well-written (though there's not much new ground here for anyone who's taken a family law class or is familiar with Stephanie Coontz's work). I also appreciated the context and perspective the authors provide on same-sex marriage and custody issues. I'm not sure, though, how I feel about the conclusion. On one hand, pointing out areas where the red and blue positions aren't too far apart (promoting stable marriage by supporting adolescents' transition to adulthood; reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies; reconsidering the relationship among work, family, and education) doesn't happen often enough ... on the other, it sidesteps some of the more contentious issues the authors touch upon (i.e., abortion rights and same-sex parenting), and probably overstates the areas of overlap. (Yes, expanded funding for contraceptives may well reduce abortions, but that still doesn't mean the redder states will go for it. Yes, our health care system needs a comprehensive overhaul, but unless you've been asleep for the last 2 years, you know what a huge issue this is -- which makes sticking it in a single paragraph in the conclusion seem like a not-very-skilled dodge.)

In summary, worth a read (especially if you read anything, like me) and a discussion, but makes a far lesser contribution to the discussion than I'd hoped.

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