Asking June Carbone: Why do conservative families have so many leftish problems?

Despite the fact that America's most conservative states champion traditional family values, these can be difficult to find in day-to-day life. Dr. June Carbone, co-author of

FLORIDA, November 12, 2012— Many on the right often speak a great deal about “family values”.

Over the last few decades, the term itself has become invariably tied with a theo-conservative social policy agenda. Interestingly enough, the regions that support such a thing are the least likely to practice it. From teenage pregnancy to divorce, America’s most conservative states have the highest degrees of family problems typically associated with cultural leftism.

The truth really is stranger than fiction, it would seem.

Two years ago, a book was published about this quagmire, aptly titled Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture. Despite running into more than a bit of controversy with social rightists, its findings were unmistakable.

In this first part of a candid discussion, June Carbone, one of the book’s co-authors, tells us about the importance of political philosophy in modern American family life, why families in right-leaning states tend to have so many dilemmas, whether or not religion is important in determining a family’s value set, and much more.


Joseph F. Cotto: How important would you say that political philosophy is in modern American family life?

Dr. June Carbone: I would certainly say that “values orientation” and the connection to political ideology have become increasingly important to American family life. By values orientation, I mean individual differences in the preference for black and white rules versus contextual determinations, order and stability versus change, loyalty to your own group versus inclusiveness. These values preferences correspond to ideological and political leanings, but they are not always part of a coherent, internally consistent philosophy.

When I was growing up, the background expectations about family were pretty much the same for everyone. Liberals and conservatives might both attend the same churches and had the same expectations about marriage and gender roles. Today, liberal and conservatives are likely to attend different churches, even within the same religion, and they are likely to express their values about family in different ways.

even so, liberal, and conservative elites are both likely to raise their children in two parent families. Yet, when they express why that is important or how they got there, they are likely to give very different explanations.

Cotto: Families in right-leaning states tend to have a great deal of social problems such as divorce and teenage pregnancy. From your standpoint, why is this?

Dr. Carbone: There are two overlapping divisions and they reinforce each other. First, liberal communities –the North East, much of the West Coast, and tech centers like Northern Virginia, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, Austin, TX and parts of Colorado – tend to be wealthier. They attract a highly educated and relatively liberal workforce. Many of the most conservative states, particularly the Bible Belt that runs from Texas through Oklahoma and across the Appalachian belt to West Virginia, parts of the Midwest, the South and the Mountain States, tend to be poorer.

So some of the differences are class-based, and recent economic changes have increased the disparities in wealth – recent drops in teen births in states such as New Hampshire or Virginia, for example, reflect the effects of in-migration, not just changes among those born in the state. Poorer communities, on the other hand, have always had higher divorce and teen birth rates.

What’s new is that since the nineties, the class-based disparities have increased. College graduates have divorce rates today that look the divorce rates of the early to mid-sixties, before no-fault divorce and the widespread availability of the pill, and teen birth rates have fallen substantially. Those who do not graduate from college have high divorce rates that continued to rise at least until the financial crisis. So part of the difference is simply a difference in wealth in an era of greater inequality.

Second, these economic differences reinforce longstanding cultural differences that influence responses to the changing family. Blue states tend to have modernist (i.e., more liberal, more secular) elites who are more comfortable with change. The more conservative areas tend to have more traditionalist elites, who respond to threatening changes by doubling down on traditional values.

Some political science studies find, for example, that in red states, the elites are more likely to attend church than the working class. In blue states, the working class is often more religious than the elites, who tend to be more secular. These cultural differences in elites go back to the founding of the country – the New England settlers were more modernist than the Scots-Irish who settled the Appalachian belt.

In today’s society, however, the elite differences have been become more ideological, and they influence family practices. For example, one of the major reasons that the divorce rate has dropped for college graduates is that the better educated tend to marry at later ages, and they have become more likely to marry each other. Both later age of marriage and assortative mating (the tendency of like to marry like), which tends to increase with later age at the time of marriage, decrease the likelihood of divorce.

In more conservative areas, even college graduates tend to marry at younger ages, in part because there is less support for non-marital cohabitation. In addition, the more liberal states have embraced much more systematic provision of contraception and abortion, while more conservative states are less likely to encourage either.

The Guttmacher Institute reports, for example,that between 1994 and 2006, the unintended pregnancy rate grew by 50 percent for women below the poverty line. During the same period, it fell by 29 percent for higher income women. There are a number of factors that contribute to these developments, but one of them is access to contraception and abortion. Abortion rates have declined significantly for everyone.

For elites, however, they have declined primarily because of more effective use of contraception. Yet, for successful college graduates, a fairly high percentage of unplanned pregnancies still end in abortion, and the willingness to abort has helped to hold on the line on non-marital births. The most liberal states subsidize both contraception and abortion for poorer women. In these states, overall fertility is lower, and the shotgun marriage, which produces very high divorce rates, is close to non-existent.

In more conservative states, poor women today enjoy increasingly less access to either contraception or abortion. The most effective forms of contraception – the IUD, the pill, sterilization, and long acting hormones – require access to a doctor. In addition, contraception is much more effective for teens if it begins before sexual activity. Today, doctors routinely recommend the pill for adolescents as a way to regularize periods or reduce menstrual cramps. This only happens, however, for teens with access to regular check-ups.

Yet, increasing parts of the population lack access to regular health care. More liberal states try to make control of reproduction available to poor women as part of their public health systems. More conservative states discourage the subsidization of both contraception and abortion, partly because they provide less generous public support more generally, partly because they are more opposed to abortion, and partly because they are more likely to champion abstinence policies.

These policies, which may reaffirm the moral values of the devout, tend to make it less likely that poorer women will engage in family planning. Poor women often share conservative religious values, but they begin sexual activity earlier, they are more vulnerable to coercive men, and they have less access to information about effective contraception.

The most recent studies of premarital sex (Regnerus and Uecker) indicate that white female college students who are religious and conservative are in fact more likely to be virgins that most of the rest of the unmarried age group from 19 to 23.But conservative, moderately religious men who do not attend college are among the most sexually active of the same age group. And very few of the women who date them are virgins.

Cotto: Many of those in the aforementioned states support traditional family values at the polling station. Nonetheless, these values are not always present in day-to-day life. Can this apparent contradiction be explained? 

Dr. Carbone: The answer is simple. Traditionalists value what they think is right. Modernists value what works.

Traditionalists emphasize support for time-honored values in the public square; they view sin and forgiveness as something dealt with at home. So they applaud Bristol Palin for accepting the consequences of “sinful” sexual activity by having the child and later acting as an abstinence spokesperson.

Modernists, in contrast, view values as something the individual chooses. So they view the person who has the unplanned pregnancy and then preaches abstinence as a hypocrite. Traditionalists often view support for religiously ordained principles (no sex outside of marriage, abortion as murder) as givens. The individual has no power to change what God has ordered. Modernists tend to be more focused on what works.

Every study finds that the easiest way to reduce abortions is to promote more effective use of birth control. Yet, many religious conservatives are unwilling to publicly embrace contraception to the extent that it symbolizes support for a right to engage in unmarried sexual conduct. It doesn’t matter that almost every sexually active adult has sex outside of marriage at some point. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong.

Modernists are appalled both by the willingness to impose religiously ordained values on others and by the adoption of policies that disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. Some argue that women who become pregnant have access to less expensive methods (e.g., condoms) and that some women deliberately choose not to use birth control. Both are true. Indeed, almost everyone acknowledges that a promising future is the best contraceptive.

It is also true, however, that some women want access to contraception who don’t have it now. The deliberate failure to provide publicly subsidized access to the most effective methods and to systematize not only access but encouragement to use birth control contributes to differences in childbearing.

In another era, politicians might have implemented pragmatic policies outside of public view. Today, the rise of the Tea Party and the 24-hour-news cycle makes it harder for politicians to do so. They are effectively held hostage to the most extreme views, and those who see the world in black and white are more opposed to compromise that those who see the worlds in shades of gray.

Cotto: In your opinion, how important is religion in determining any given family’s social, or even economic, values?

Dr. Carbone:

This tends to vary by education, income, and the type of church. Élites are more likely to choose which church they attend based on a match between their values and those of the church. The less educated or less politically active tend to have more inconsistent views. So in my youth, my working class Italian-American relatives all thought of themselves as Catholic. Some really believed in it, and some didn’t.Some would pick and choose the Church doctrines they observed. But we almost never discussed religion, and church attendance had little to do with economic or political beliefs.

Today, those who are both well educated and think of themselves as active Catholics tend to believe in much of what the Church teaches. For those people who have very consciously chosen to be part of a particular church, religion is an important part of their personal identity. I am sure it is, for example, for Mitt Romney. And for many churches today, particularly fundamentalist churches, the religious beliefs also tend to be associated with particular economic views and attitudes toward a variety of political and social issues.

Those who seek out such churches want to be with others who share the same views. Today, one of the biggest divides is between people who attend church more than one a week and people who attend hardly at all, even if they say they belong to the same religion. At the same time, many of those who are inclined to be skeptical – of religious teachings, of doctrinaire political beliefs, of any kind of orthodoxy — have stopped going to church. So the people in church on Sundays have become more likely to share the same views.

Some people, however, still attend their neighborhood church because members of their family have always done so. Their church attendance may not necessarily reflect agreement with those around them or any particular set of political or economic views.

The more churches reflect ethnic as opposed to ideological identity, congregations determined by neighborhood rather than congregant choice, and diverse membership, the less likely they are to be closely identified with particular ideological beliefs unrelated to religion.

Cotto: Left-leaning states tend to have greater numbers of families that are socioeconomically stable. Why might this be?

Dr. Carbone:

Again, I see this as a product of the fact that blue states tend to be wealthier and to be more willing to spend money on schools, jobs, and community improvement.  Conservatives tend to be more inclined to believe that disparities in wealth are a product of differences in intelligence and hard work rather than a problem to be solved.   The most recent studies indicate that family stability and educational performance tend to be correlated with community health and relative equality.  When a plant closes, the education performance of both the children whose parents were laid off and those whose parents retained their jobs tends to suffer.

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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