Tuesday, May 4, 2010

False Causality: Red States and Teen Pregnancy

I was reading this interesting article by Jonathan Rauch which expounds on a premise set forth by two family law professors in their new research paper ("Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture"):

1. Conservative values beget teen pregnancy.
2. Teen pregnancy begets too-young marriage.
3. Too-young marriage begets an end to education.
4. An end to education begets poverty and ignorance.
5. Poverty and ignorance beget conservative values.

This cycle, Rauch claims, results in those famous "Red States" where teen pregnancy and divorce are skyrocketing even though they are the "bastions" of the Family Values crowd. In contrast, he says, following the premise of the research:

1. Liberal values beget abstinence and contraception.
2. Abstinence and contraception begets delay of marriage.
3. Delay of marriage begets continuation of education.
4. Continuation of education begets wealth and intelligence.
5. Wealth and intelligence begets liberal values.

This results in those famous "Blue States" where teen pregnancy and divorce rates are the lowest.
To define the divide in a sentence: In red America, families form adults; in blue America, adults form families.

[This] is what "families form adults" means. [In the past] many teenagers and young adults formed families before they reached maturity and then came to maturity precisely by shouldering family responsibilities. ...

But then along come two game-changers: the global information economy and the birth-control revolution. The postindustrial economy puts a premium on skill and cognitive ability. A high school education or less no longer offers very good prospects. ... Meanwhile, birth control separates decisions about sex from decisions about parenthood, and the advent of effective female contraception lets men shift the moral responsibility for pregnancy to women, eroding the shotgun marriage. Divorce becomes easy to obtain and sheds its stigma. Women stream into the workforce and become more economically independent — a good thing, but with the side effect of contributing to a much higher divorce rate.

In this very different world, early family formation is often a calamity. It short-circuits skill acquisition by knocking one or both parents out of school. It carries a high penalty for immature marital judgment in the form of likely divorce. It leaves many young mothers, now bearing both the children and the cultural responsibility for pregnancy, without the option of ever marrying at all.

New norms arise for this environment, norms geared to prevent premature family formation. The new paradigm prizes responsible childbearing and child-rearing far above the traditional linkage of sex, marriage, and procreation. Instead of emphasizing abstinence until marriage, it enjoins: Don't form a family until after you have finished your education and are equipped for responsibility. In other words, adults form families. Family life marks the end of the transition to adulthood, not the beginning.
I think that's a specious connection being insinuated by the writer, Jonathan Rauch, between political mindset or proclivities and this "family formation" schema. I can't be sure if the researchers made it themselves... although the title of their paper ("Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture") certainly hints that they were thinking at least of something similar (if not just trying to sensationalize their findings).

Just as an immediate starting thought: black and other minority Americans tend to be overwhelmingly Liberal, and yet they are victim (if that's the best word) to this same "traditional family formation" pattern as the (let's just come out and say it:) rednecks.

I think it is more of an economic / educational (and perhaps spiritual) process that leads people to teenage pregnancy and early marriage, rather than one of morals or values or cultural norms. I doubt that horny teenagers in Alabama are somehow more likely to reject the use of a condom as compared to horny New York teenagers because they were raised differently. I doubt that teenage girls in Texas pass on using contraceptive pills because Texas parents stop them from doing it whereas Oregon parents don't. I really don't think that the options that a pregnant teenage couple ponders while praying in a Baptist Church in Georgia would be very different from those pondered by a pregnant teenage couple praying in a Baptist Church in Massachusetts. Finally, inversely, I don't think that a boy from a Democrat-voting family in Connecticut is more likely than a boy from a Republican-voting family in Tennessee to refuse to marry his pregnant girlfriend, leaving her knocked-up, alone, and unsupported.

While ignorance may lead to teen pregnancy and teen marriage, ignorance isn't a trait that lives only in the minds of the denizens of The Red States of America. It's far more likely that the teenagers in Red States believe that their educational and economic prospects are dim enough that they don't feel that they are "hurting their chances" at success by starting a family early. (And, having grown up in the New York version of a redneck bastion, I'd say they are probably right.)

Actually... that just helped me figure it out: Thinking about my home town. Rauch and these two professors are completely wrong.

Here's why:

My school in my hometown of Bath, New York, ran a rather broad gamut of the rural social backgrounds, from children who grew up in shacks out in the woods to the children of the highly educated local professionals. When did the kids who grew up in shacks get pregnant and get married? Early. Where are they now? Bath. Some of them are in shacks, some of them are doing better than their parents, a few of them are doing far better than that as well. But overall... well, that's the way the world works. And their kids are now sitting at the same desks I and my school mates sat at 25 years ago.

Kids living in shacks (or kids who are otherwise better off, but are slackers or failures) in general don't plan on college; they plan on a wife, kids, and a job... if they plan at all. Whether they get started at the age of 16 or 19 or 23... it doesn't impact too much when a job at the local diner or gas station or factory or farm is all they ever expected out of life.

But, what about the other half of Bath's kids who had "better prospects" based on their upbringing, their family's stability or economic status, or their educational efforts? Most of them left town, went to college, and now they're living (more often than not) in "Blue" states. Why? Because that's where the good-paying jobs that they studied hard for at college took them.

Of course, after college some of them went back to Bath... or even to other "redneck bastions" in other places... but their kids will nevertheless have the same opportunities that they themselves had (as compared to the kids who started off in shacks) when they were kids in Bath.

So, I'll agree that the basic foundational fact of the article is accurate: Early marriage doesn't work well in the modern world. Yes: They have a higher likelihood of divorce due to their age and inexperience. Yes: They are unlikely to attain higher education because of their family responsibilities. Yes: They are much more likely to be poor without a full college education. No doubt to any of that. But the social stressors that lead to pregnancy, early marriage (and eventual divorce) aren't primarily a function of political alignment, religious upbringing, or moral values.

Most importantly, the premise that such negative consequences are brought about by "conservative" or "traditional" values isn't true because, quite simply: Ignorance, lack of better alternatives, and (let's face it) unadulterated teenage libido knows no political strain.

The second claim that teen pregnancy and young marriage have measurable geographical "hot spots" (in "Red States") while true, is a false causality. Location, as shown in my hometown example, is a function of education, opportunity, and economics more than any kind of cultural or political habitat: The richer and better-educated you are, the more likely you are to move (and to have the means and desire to make the attempt to move) to a "Blue State environment" if you grew up in a Red one.

So, in summary:

1. Family's wealth or poverty helps determine family stability.
2. Family stability helps determine child's educational prospects.
3. Child's educational prospects help determine child's opportunity.
4. Child's opportunity helps determine child's family location.
5. Family location helps determine family's wealth or poverty.

Hat tip to J. for the link to the article, by the way.

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