If you didn't know us better, you might think Erin and I are traditional red-state family values voters: Dad as breadwinner, Mom mostly on stay-at-home patrol (and cooking really yummy meals). But a new book by legal scholars Naomi Cahn and June Carbone finds our values align pretty solidly with what they call "blue family" values: deferring marriage and childbirth to achieve some educational and economic gains first. "Red families," say Cahn and Carbone, see marriage and childbirth as the path to adulthood and thus encourage those activities sooner. Red families incline toward traditional gender roles as well.
Cahn and Carbone find that red families and the red states they fill with Republican/conservative votes have higher teen birth rates and higher divorce rates than blue families and blue Democrat/liberal states. What's happening here? Republican family values hypocrisy? Oh no—neocon fundies and us hippies alike are busting our chops to live up to our family values. It's just that the "red family system" doesn't fit our post-industrial economy:
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.
...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 [emphases mine; Amy DePaul, "Why Do Red States Have the Worst 'Family Values'?" AlterNet, 2010.08.02].
As our esteemed SDSU philosophy prof David Nelson would have said, the higher levels of divorce among the traditional family values crowd is a hoop thing. Their worldview—their hoop—tells them that Dad ought to be able to go to work and make enough money to keep his family in pork chops and Sunday shoes, while Mom ought to be able to stay home and raise the kids right. Those values don't differ much from my wife's and mine. But in low-wage states like South Dakota, living those values is an enormous challenge. (78% of South Dakota kids younger than 6 have both parents working, the highest such percentage in the nation.) When your values tell you one thing and your wallet forces you to do something else, that's going to take a psychic toll. It busts your hoop... and maybe your family stability.
Cahn and Carbone cite Utah as a notable exception to the red-divorce trend. Utah has the lowest percentage of little kids with both parents working—just 52%. Cahn and Carbone say the shared religious commitment of Utahns provides more community support for putting family values into practice.
At the same time, Cahn and Carbone suggest that support for gay marriage may strengthen marriage and family values. Corrleation isn't causation, but consider: blue states tend to have more support for same-sex unions, and blue states have lower divorce rates. Hmm....
Just last week, I heard one of our county commissioners talk about creating a new position for a county zoning inspector. He said offering $30K for the job was reasonable, since there are plenty of other county employees working for that amount or less, and since we can find plenty of potential workers who can send their spouse out to work as well. When we build county staff and policy around the assumption that both spouses will work, we make it harder to attract people to our community who want to live out traditional family values and, as my wife and I manage, have at least parent around the house for Junior more often than not.
Granted, the county can't just double every employee's salary to allow every spouse to quit and head home. But when we talk about threats to family values, we need to spend less time looking for bogeymen we can "otherize" and demonize. Instead we "family values" advocates (aren't we all family values advocates?) should concentrate on changing the realities of the economic soup in which we all swim.