On Family Issues, Californians Talk Left, Live Right

Smiling mother and father sharing breakfast with young family at table in backyard
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A new report, released Tuesday by the Institute for Family Studies, explores why left-leaning Californians live surprisingly conservative family lives.

The report, authored by IFS scholars Wendy Wang and W. Bradford Wilcox, builds on a survey of Californians' opinions about marriage and family structure. It finds that many California couples profess progressive views, in line with their state's bright-blue image but contrary to their own commitment to the institution of marriage.

The findings suggest that while Californians may believe progressive "family values" work fine for everyone else, they still choose to live in more traditional arrangements when their children's wellbeing is on the line.

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California is one of the nation's bluest states, giving over 60 percent of its presidential vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016. It's also home to powerhouse left-leaning industries, including Silicon Valley and Hollywood. And, at least since it became the first state in the union to implement no-fault divorce in 1969, California has often led the nation in pushing for more liberalized family norms.

That liberal attitude is reflected in the views many Californians express. Significant majorities support "family diversity," i.e., family structures beyond the traditional two-parent arrangement. Only a minority believe out-of-wedlock childrearing is wrong, while two-thirds agree with the statement, "Living together is just as good as being married."

At the same time, the new report finds, Californians are actually slightly more likely to be in stable family arrangements than the nation as a whole. Sixty-seven percent of California parents ages 18 to 50 are in intact marriages, compared with 63 percent nationwide. Seven percent of California parents are remarried, while 9 percent are divorced; the national figures are 11 and 10 percent, respectively. California adults as a whole are also marginally less likely to be cohabiting, 9 percent compared with 10 percent.

In other words, Californians tend to "talk left, but live right," on average advocating for more progressive social values while living more conservatively than the country as a whole. What explains this paradox? The report identifies three factors: Asians, immigrants, and the educated.

California's population contains substantially more foreign-born people—roughly 27 percent, compared with 14 percent nationwide. It also has twice as many Asians, percentage-wise—15 percent compared with 7 percent. Both of these groups are more likely to be married and to profess conservative family values, the new IFS report finds.

"Our analysis finds that the share of intact families among parents ages 18 to 50 in California would drop 2.6 percentage points if California had the same share of foreign-born parents as the U.S.," Wilcox and Wang write. "Similarly, if California had the same ethnic/racial makeup of parents as the U.S., California’s proportion of intact families would drop about 1 percentage point."

The authors intimate that immigrants and Asians having more traditional family values may be driving their stable marriages. Their analysis of the data, however, indicates that income and education actually play a bigger role overall—having an education or being well-off are stronger predictors of a California couple being intact than being Asian or foreign-born.

Educational differences also get at the heart of the "think left, live right" paradox. As in the nation as a whole, more-educated Californians are more likely to be married: Eighty percent of California parents with a bachelor's degree were in intact families, compared with 61 percent of those without. At the same time, conservative family values are actually negatively correlated with educational attainment, meaning, for example, that those without a college degree were 21 percentage points less likely to say that "family diversity" should be celebrated than those with one.

Wilcox and Wang emphasize that California's advantage in stable families is not explained by having more educated people than the nation as a whole. But this seeming contradiction—that the most educated are simultaneously the most stably married and the most publicly blasé about stable marriage—helps explain who is making California press the same values publicly.

"In their own ways, these three groups—Asians, immigrants, and more educated Californians—probably realize that the pathway to educational attainment, financial success, and the American Dream is much more likely to run through stable, married families than the alternatives," the report concludes. "And so they live accordingly, even if—in their roles as movie producers, Silicon Valley executives, educators, and doctors—they often lend public voice to the cause of progressive family values."