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Political ideologies affect family stability on county level, study finds
New research from Brad Wilcox on red versus blue models and connection to family stability involved a look at counties and found an even stronger connection for heavily red areas in raising children in more stable two-parent homes. - photo by Mandy Morgan
New research published by Family Studies from family social scientists Brad Wilcox and Nicholas Zill on how partisan ideology impacts family stability concludes that at the county level is a strong connection between heavily conservative, or red, areas and more children raised in stable two-parent homes.

"When you shift your attention to local, to counties, the redder the county, it is more linear: the stronger the relationship is with the share of parents who are married, teenagers living with biological parents. Redder are more likely to foster family stability," said Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project.

Before Wilcox's and Zill's research finding that both heavily red and blue states foster more stable families, the generally accepted theory among social scientists was that the liberal, or blue, model was best for families, a belief backed by research from Naomi Cahn of George Washington University Law School and June Carbone of the University of Minnesota.

The red and blue labels in both studies go beyond partisan politics. Red is based on a more traditional and conservative approach to marriage, sex and procreation, influenced by religious beliefs and leaning toward marriage at a younger age. Blue is characterized by people who are more financially stable before having a family, along with more emphasis on education and more flexible views of marriage.

"The blue model makes an investment in women as well as men and both of their education and earning capability, which requires a change in marriage to support the later age of marriage and child-bearing. Birth control is absolutely essential and abortion is a fall-back," Carbone said.

For their research, Wilcox and Zill, a psychologist with the Journalism Center on Children & Families, created a Red State Index for each of the 50 states. In addition to the characteristics used by Cahn and Carbone, the index was based on the average margin of victory or defeat for the Republican candidate in the six U.S. presidential elections between 1992 and 2012 in each state.

Wilcox and Zill used the Census Bureau's American Community Survey for their research.

They found that on the state level, both extremes of the index fostered more stable family units. That ran contrary to conventional wisdom that blue states were home to more stable families because of their emphasis on education, income stability and having children later in life.

Wilcox said the South is the reason for the stigma of the red model being less family friendly because red states in the Southern region of the U.S. have higher rates of divorce and more children not living with both biological parents.

However, when he and Zill examined the data on the county level, they found that heavily red counties in the South had more family stability, just like the heavily blue areas of the North. Research on the county level has at least three measures marriage, nonmarital childbearing and family stability worth considering, that show how "red counties typically enjoy somewhat stronger families than do blue counties," wrote the study authors.

Wilcox and Zill said that the red state model's impact on family stability "works fairly well" in the West and Midwest, while the blue state model does the same in Northeastern and Midwestern states.

The research found that the reddest counties had lower levels of children born to unmarried parent, and that teens in these counties are more likely to live with both biological parents.

"This finding is noteworthy because children raised in stable, two-parent families are more likely to avoid detours in life that can get them off track," Zill and Wilcox wrote. "They are also significantly more likely to get a good education and to flourish in the contemporary labor force."

The research write-up did not discuss findings for the bluest counties, though "these analyses also tell us that red counties do not have an overwhelming advantage when it comes to family life," the study authors wrote. "Unfortunately, only about one in two teens is part of a two-parent, biological family in most red and blue counties across America."

Figures from the study also showed that counties that gave a larger share of their vote to the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, in 2012 have a larger part of their population that is married, with or without controls for religion, education, race and age on the county level, as well as weighting for population size of the counties.

"To be sure: the positive link between voting Republican and family stability is only modest, but it runs directly against the conventional wisdom," Zill and Wilcox said. "The red advantage in marriage, in all likelihood, flows in part from higher levels of religious participation and normative support for marriage found in more politically conservative counties."

While Cahn and Carbone believe their data show that the blue model more often results in stable families, neither researcher asserts that either the red or blue model is better than the other in every case. But they said the models should be considered by government leaders in determining which policies can best help people and communities when economic shifts take place.

Cahn and Carbone contend there are more factors to be considered, such as race and income, when looking at the connection between conservative and liberal labels and family dynamics.

"If you look at religiosity, you have high rates among blacks. But you can't just look at one fact. It's income, education and race. It's an incredibly complex story," Cahn said. "I think we would say, on its own terms, the red family model worked for a long period of time and it still works quite well in some communities. But as the data shows, if you're going to be looking at (family) stability, there are a whole range of factors that need to be examined."

Data on another facet of the research by Zill and Wilcox released Tuesday looked at the red and blue family models taking race and ethnicity into account. They found that family stability did vary by race and ethnicity, and that some racial groups do better in certain red or blue states than others.

The research also found that Asian-American families are more stable than any other racial and ethnic group.
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