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They're Living Alone and Liking It

April 07, 1985|JANICE MALL

Increasing numbers of Americans are living alone, and most of them like it, according to a recent national study conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

The study contradicts the predictions of many professional observers that changing life styles during the last few decades would result in numbers of people living alone by circumstance rather than choice, becoming socially isolated and suffering from health problems.

However, the study also found that the group of unmarried people who were lonely and cut off from contact with other adults were not precisely living alone. The "true social isolates" are women who are single parents, the authors said.

The institute reported that in 1940 fewer than 8% of U.S. households were composed of people living alone. By 1980 the figure was almost one in four. "The average marriage age is rising, income has increased substantially and fewer unmarried adults choose to remain in their parents' homes," said sociologist Duane F. Alwin in the university's report on the findings. Other factors in the numbers of households maintained by single adults are the increasing divorce rate, longer lives of widows and an increasing number of never-married women with children.

Psychological Results

The conventional wisdom in sociology is that people "depend on close primary relations" and are less happy when they live without a companion adult. But in looking at different groups of single people and how they reported their morale and well-being, the researchers found that while living arrangements do influence psychological states, there is little evidence that people who live alone suffer more distress than those who live with other adults. Many had more social contacts outside the household than married couples or people who live with other adults.

"Living alone is frequently an arrangement of choice," Alwin said. "Even when it appears to have been the consequence of a catastrophic event such as the death of a spouse, living alone is not necessarily perceived as undesirable. In fact, among widows in our study, living alone was often associated with higher levels of well-being."

The ones who most frequently reported feelings of loneliness were divorced mothers. "Even though their circumstances of living bring them into contact with neighbors and relatives, their lives appear to be severely restricted in terms of opportunities for much social contact with friends," Alwin said.

Foundations, educational institutions and other organizations that give grants often fund programs that discriminate against women and girls, according to Bernice Sandler, executive director of the Project on the Status and Education of Women of the Assn. of American Colleges.

This is usually unintentional on the part of grant-givers, Sandler thinks. Many programs that receive funds inadvertently perpetuate the bias of the larger society. Examples Sandler gives include a scholarship program that informally gives preference to men because of the belief (inaccurate) of administrators that women are less likely to finish school or stay with their careers; or a program to train minority youth for technical jobs that ends up enrolling young men almost exclusively. Some United Funds have been found to give much more money to male organizations like Boy Scouts than to Girl Scouts. Also, Sandler says, women and girls are often overlooked in foundation-sponsored research. Recent major reports on the state of the nation's schools, for example, did not deal with the problems of equity in education for girls.

Evaluating Fairness

With the view that most fund donors want to be fair, Sandler has written a set of guidelines by which those who decide on grants can evaluate the fairness of programs that are applying for money. It includes more than 50 questions foundations may use to determine whether an applicant is committed to ending discrimination. (The questions may also be used to assess the impact of programs on other specific groups such as minorities.)

Among the things to look at, she wrote, are the access of women and girls to the services to be provided; the inclusion of women as researchers and administrators; the inclusion of women in scholarship, fellowship and award programs; whether a program's printed materials such as reports, pamphlets and brochures will be evaluated for bias.

Important Questions

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