Thursday, June 11, 2015
The North-South Divide on Two-Parent Families - Note for a Lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"
nytimes.com: Link contains interactive map (with explanation for the colors) and additional links within the text
The North-South Divide on Two-Parent
JUNE 11, 2015
When it comes to family arrangements, the United States has a North-South
divide. Children growing up across much of the northern part of the country
are much more likely to grow up with two parents than children across the
It’s not just a red-blue political divide, either. There is a kind of two-parent
arc that starts in the West in Utah, runs up through the Dakotas and
Minnesota and then down into New England and New Jersey. It encompasses
both the conservative Mountain West and the liberal Northeast.
Single-parent families, by contrast, are most common in a Southern arc
beginning in Nevada, and extending through New Mexico, Oklahoma and the
Deep South before coming up through Appalachia into West Virginia.
These patterns — which come from a new analysis of census data — are
important because evidence suggests that children usually benefit from
growing up with two parents. It’s probably not a coincidence, for instance, that
the states with more twoparent families also have higher rates of upward
Talking about the advantages of twoparent families can be awkward, I
realize, because it can seem to dismiss the heroic work that so many single
parents do. Managing parenthood, work and the rest of life without a partner
is deeply impressive. Nevertheless, the sharp rise in singleparent families has
contributed to skyhigh inequality and deserves discussion.
The new geographic analysis comes from W. Bradford Wilcox, a
University of Virginia sociologist, and Nicholas Zill, a psychologist. They did
the analysis, they said, after reading recent Upshot articles on upward mobility
and marriage — and realizing that the geography of American family was
somewhat different from the conventional wisdom.
That conventional wisdom stems from the fact that politically
conservative states, for all their emphasis on family values, have long had high
divorce rates. In the Northeast, California and Illinois, divorce is notably low.
As a result, some researchers have argued that families in blue states are more
stable than families in red states.
And they are, on average. But the new paper argues that the situation also
has some important nuances. Above all, divorce is no longer the main reason
that children do not grow up with both of their parents. Divorce has declined
in recent years. So, however, has marriage, while single parenthood — and the
number of children who never live with both parents — has risen sharply.
Marriage and single parenthood don’t break down along the same redblue
lines that divorce does.
Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Zill argue that there are actually two models for
having a large share of stable families: the bluestate model and the redstate
In the blue-state model, Americans get more education and earn higher
income — and more educated, higherearning people tend to marry and stay
married. In Minnesota, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut, at least
51 percent of teenagers are being raised by both biological parents, among the
highest rates in the nation. (That figure excludes families in which the two
parents are together without being married; such arrangements are still rare —
and less likely to last than marriages.)
In the redstate model, educational attainment is closer to average, but
“residents are more likely to have deep normative and religious commitments
to marriage and to raising children within marriage,” write Mr. Wilcox and Mr.
Zill. This model applies across much of the Great Plains and Mountain West,
including Nebraska and Utah.
The lowest rates of twoparent families tend to be in states that don’t fit
either model: red states with the lowest levels of education or blue states with
only average levels of education.
Much is still unknown about how growing up with one parent affects
children. The effects vary greatly, and many children raised by just one parent
thrive, including the current president of the United States. Yet most children
appear to do better if they grow up with two parents.
Boys who grow up with two parents seem to end up substantially stronger
economically, according to a survey of the research by David Autor, an M.I.T.
economist. Girls appear less likely to become pregnant as teenagers, according
to another study. Among the reasons: Households with two parents tend to
have more money and some less tangible benefits, including less stress, more
involvement from grandparents and less unexpected change.
“Kids thrive on stable routines,” said Mr. Wilcox, who himself was raised
by a single parent.
Of course, the line between one- and two-parent families can be fuzzy.
Many children born to unmarried parents end up living for long stretches with
two adults: one of their parents and a partner of that parent. Such households
are counted as singleparent households in some analyses, including this one,
for a reason: Households that include both parents of the children living there
are significantly more stable on average than households in which one parent
is in a relationship with another adult.
“Most of those relationships don’t go the distance,” said Mr. Wilcox, also
the director of the National Marriage Project, a University of Virginia research
One striking aspect of the map above is how it resembles another map
we’ve recently published: one showing where poor children have the best odds
of rising into the middle class, based on a large new study of millions of
earnings records over the last few decades.
Even some of the exceptions to the NorthSouth gap line up in the two
maps. Texas has higher rates of twoparent families and higher rates of
upward mobility than most of the rest of the South. The industrial Midwest,
including parts of Indiana and Ohio, has fewer twoparent families and worse
Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Zill also point out that twoparent families tend to be
more common in states with predominantly white populations. But race is
hardly the only explanation for the patterns. White singleparent families have
become much more common in recent years. And in the Deep South, single
parenthood is common among both whites and blacks.
The data does have one obvious shortcoming. It examines the number of
teenagers living with both of their biological parents. That definition excludes
both children who were adopted as babies and children of samesex couples.
In both cases, the children could have lived with the same parents for virtually
their entire lives, in a stable environment similar to that experienced by
children living with two biological parents.
Still, this shortcoming is unlikely to affect the overall patterns, because
only a few percent of children nationwide are adopted or have samesex
parents. Even the ideal data set would find a NorthSouth divide, as this
It’s another sign that the North is faring better, on average, than the South
today, whether the yardstick is income, education, life expectancy or family
structure. And the various gaps then reinforce each other. Higherearning
families have an easier time remaining intact — but intact families are also
more likely to produce children who are healthy, educated and ultimately
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A version of this article appears in print on June 11, 2015, on page A3 of the New York edition with
the headline: A Geographic Divide on Family Life in America.
© 2015 The New York Times Company