Red families & blue families
My wife and I lived together for two years prior to tying the knot, though we were both still in college when we finally made our vows. We’d known each other and dated for quite a while and it seemed like a good idea to make the commitment more formal (though she never has changed her name). My wife is quite liberal and not at all religious, and to her the wedding was more about the commitment than any sort of religious obligation. For me it was more about the anticipation of family. If a baby were to come, I wanted to be ahead of the game. And why not? We loved each other (and still do!) and were committed and had (and have) no intention of going our separate ways. We got a great vacation out of it.
Our first child came a couple years later just as I was (finally) finishing up my degree (it took me about seven years due to some rather bad decisions toward the beginning of my college career) and my wife was about half way through hers. We had not planned to have children quite yet, but we never considered abortion as a way to delay that chapter in our lives. Indeed, in many ways having a child pushed us both out of our various ruts. I found ways to put my education to use and began making considerably more money than before – enough to allow my wife to stay home full time with our daughter. We have another child on the way which, this time, was part of the plan. We are not terribly materialistic people, nor terribly ambitious, and having a lot of money at the moment is not extremely important. We plan to live near the best schools or send our kids to good charters and focus on those sorts of priorities.
In many ways, I suppose, we are a blue family that started the whole parenting/marriage game a bit early. So it’s interesting to read this article in the National Journal about the differences between red and blue families. The gist is this:
Blue states have more successful families than red states. The divorce rate is lower and teen birth rates are lower in blue states than in red ones. And there is a strong correlation between the age people decide to get hitched and their eventual economic success as well as the success of their marriages and children. In Red states, traditional norms against birth control and co-habitation sans wedding rings, paradoxically leads to young people making unsustainable marital decisions that no longer succeed in the ways they did when cultural norms toward divorce and economic circumstances for blue collar workers were different. Blue families have adapted by marrying later after their education and financial lives are more settled. Or, in summary:
To define the divide in a sentence: In red America, families form adults; in blue America, adults form families.
This all sounds about right to me. Having children young or before you’ve both finished your degree and found fantastic careers and so forth is much more difficult financially. My wife and I really did have a lot of growing up to do, and the lifestyle change was difficult (though the sleep, or lack thereof, was certainly the hardest change).
Then again, I think it goes quite a ways beyond that. It has a lot to do with your family’s economic situation and level of educational achievement also. If you come from a solidly middle or upper-middle class family and you get married young you also stand a much better chance of getting a helping hand from grandparents and probably have a better chance in the job market due to education and connections and so forth. Certainly it is harder having children young and not having two incomes or not having finished all your education, but for us and for many of the younger couples I know, it is not an insurmountable challenge – if those families come from a stable economic background.
I am lucky to have highly educated parents who are generous and willing to help both with the kids and, should the need arise, financially. Perhaps I would need less help if I had waited seven or eight years to have children, but I can’t say that for sure, nor can I say the quality of my life would be any better. I might have just spent a lot more time going out on the town and playing music with friends and not really getting serious about anything. That’s all fine and good, but it pales in comparison to the joy I experience – the real, fierce, raw joy of having a daughter.
I think in the end you can look at issues like this and you can say – sure, traditional social customs don’t necessarily work in modern times, that they have precisely the opposite of the intended effect. Birth control really can improve the lives of young people, especially in the global economy we live in. Abstinence really is something of a pipe dream for most people. Divorce happens regardless of faith. But you have to also look at the economic and educational starting point of these people and ask yourself – even with birth control, even without marrying young or having kids young, how do people from poorly-educated, lower-class families ever break out of these cycles?
Sure, government can provide better safety nets, and hopefully we can work toward an economy that gets people working and helping themselves, but these things are so cyclical, so ingrained that it’s difficult to know what exactly we can do as a culture or as a society to change it. One-size-fits-all answers are ultimately unsatisfying whether they’re for or against government as part of the problem/solution.
Not that I’m being too fatalistic either. Obviously policies which improve the chances of success for people, and which can help to chip away at these cycles, are important. I look at life in the middle class as one which has safety nets built in – which is why ultimately we want policies which grow the middle class. I can fall back on my parents and other family members if I run into hard times. I had a good education and can fall back on that, too. I was dealt a good hand, and even though I haven’t always played it well, I still have these built-in safety nets which give me second or third chances. I think a lot of people just take this sort of thing for granted, never think about it at all, and don’t realize just how valuable and important these built in safety nets (not to mention starting point) are to their success.
But a lot of people don’t have these built-in safety nets, and they start way back down the track. This is where I see the fundamental problem with libertarianism. Libertarians are all correct on the economics (and perhaps this is where progressives are most lacking) – free trade is good – at least in theory; private industry is the best route toward sustainable jobs, a prosperous economy, and long-term growth; government can muck things up quite a lot worse and quite a lot more quickly than it can ever fix anything, and so on and so forth. Good intentions amount to nothing if the economics aren’t sound.
But libertarians fail (or often fail) to understand that for a certain socio-economic class of people, there are no inherent safety nets. There aren’t parents to fall back on. Maybe there aren’t two parents at all, or the parents are drug addicts or alcoholics or in jail, or just don’t care that much about things like education. Maybe they’re too poor to be much help, or too uneducated to even know in the first place how to help.
Sure, private industry can provide people with jobs, but with a bad education, poor literacy, an unstable home life, or just a lack of commitment to things like education, the likelihood of getting a good job and then keeping it and then moving up into a better job down the road all while avoiding drugs, violence, and getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant – well, the chances aren’t good and private industry has failed about as badly as poorly configured welfare programs have in breaking cycles of poverty. Or at least, while it’s true that capitalism and liberalism have led to unheard of levels of prosperity, there is no way to separate the success of markets and the success of modern, liberal democracies when we discuss what has caused this prosperity. Indeed, more than likely it is a combination of all of the above.
A lot of people complain that welfare creates a disincentive to work – and for many people it does. But this is not a solid case against safety nets or against some iteration of the (limited?) welfare state. Because simply doing away with welfare does not magically create the conditions necessary for poor people to suddenly prosper. Nor does school choice magically create a bunch of very successful students from poor, uneducated families. There is no magic bullet. Neither throwing money at the problem, nor privatizing the problem will lead to success across the board. That’s why I’m not wholly in one camp or another. I think the libertarians and the progressives are right on different aspects of the problems and the solutions here, and some mixture of free markets and social democracy is probably necessary. You can look at Northern European nations for examples of how this has played out – with increasingly “socialistic” safety nets, and very strong free market economies working in tandem. Hell, look at Canada and how it’s weathered the financial crisis.
So that’s the agenda I have to offer. For rich countries—productivity growth, social insurance, and efforts to improve public health all aiming at allowing people to live more and more of their time outside the bonds of commercial work. For poor countries—capitalism, to get the process of prosperity and social betterment rolling. At the interface between the two—a generous and humane approach to migration issues so that people can have the freedom to escape bad situations, and a trade regime that aims at facilitating the exchange of goods rather than coercing poor countries into adopting the preferred policies of rich world companies. And for all of us, an overhaul of energy systems so the world doesn’t boil and we all get to keep enjoying our prosperity.
We may disagree on some points minor or otherwise when it comes to actual policies, but I find that more and more I’m coming to believe that some mix of free markets and strong social safety nets is the only way forward. There’s lots of good theoretical talk from all corners about remaking society, ridding ourselves of either capitalism or liberalism or whatever other bogeyman lurks around the corner driving us into social and economic decline, but I think in the end we are going to have to accept that markets are here to stay as much as governments are. The trick will be working out how the two can work together.