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 South.
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 two-parent families also have higher rates of upward mobility.
Talking about the advantages of two-parent 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 single-parent families has contributed to sky-high 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 red-blue 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 blue-state model and the red-state one.
In the blue-state model, Americans get more education and earn higher income — and more educated, higher-earning 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 red-state 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, in a paper for the Institute for Family Studies. This model applies across much of the Great Plains and Mountain West, including Nebraska and Utah.
The lowest rates of two-parent 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 single-parent 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,” Mr. Wilcox said.
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.
Interactive Feature | The Best and Worst Places to Grow Up: How Your Area Compares Children growing up in some places go on to earn more than they would if they had grown up elsewhere.
Even some of the exceptions to the North-South gap line up in the two maps. Texas has higher rates of two-parent 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 two-parent families and worse upward-mobility rates.
Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Zill also point out that two-parent families tend to be more common in states with predominantly white populations. But race is hardly the only explanation for the patterns. White single-parent 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 same-sex 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 same-sex parents. Even the ideal data set would find a North-South divide, as this analysis did.
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. Higher-earning families have an easier time remaining intact — but intact families are also more likely to produce children who are healthy, educated and ultimately higher earning.
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