Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The very states where candidates are running on “family values” platforms have more single-parent families than anywhere else.
While presidential hopefuls including Piyush “Bobby” Jindal and Mike Huckabee are campaigning themselves as restorers of traditional family values, the states they represent don’t actually reflect those ideals. Louisiana, where Jindal governs, and Arkansas, where Huckabee used to govern, are among the states with the lowest rates of children raised by married, biological parents. In fact, most of the Bible Belt southern states are, too.
As reported Thursday by David Leonhardt in The Upshot, a recent study shows a North-South divide in America when it comes to two-parent households. The study, from University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and psychologist Nicholas Zill, recognizes that while divorce and marriage rates have recently declined, single parenthood rates have surged upward. While they conclude that conservative states in general have more stable family structures, the map from their study clearly shows a concentration of states with the lowest parentage of two-parent households to be in the Southeast.
What this means for the children raised in these environments is up for debate. Leonhardt points to research that claims children of two-parent households end up better off economically. Other studies show that place matters just as much—if not more—in determining bright economic futures. From The Upshot’s map (above), though, we can see that the southern states with the lowest rate of two-parent households are the same as those with the worst quality of living.
The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council lists all of the states with the lowest rate of two-parent families (except Georgia) among its worst for education performance. Most of these states also ranked at the bottom of Education Week’s Quality Counts rankings as well. Ditto for health care system rankings, as compiled by the Commonwealth Fund and the United Health Foundation.
Some may attempt to connect the low rates of two-parent families in these states to the large African-American populations in them. Nope. As seen in Kids Count maps from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, there’s less of a divide between southern and northern states when it comes to the percentage of African-American children in single-family homes. The states with the largest percentages of black children in single-parent homes are in the north.
Meanwhile, the states with the highest percentage of white children in single-parent families are mostly in the south.
The data used in Wilcox’s and Zill’s research does not include adopted children or children living with same-sex parents. But there are likely fewer same-sex parent families in the south, given those states do not allow gay marriage and that Mississippi and Louisiana forbid LGBTQ couples from jointly adopting children.
It could be that children’s future prospects have less to do with how many parents are in the home and much more to do with the policies governing the states they live in. Knowing all of the above information, that’s going to be a tough talking point for presidential candidates who hail from these states.