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American Family Steadily Eroding, Researchers Find

July 20, 1988|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Despite predictions by some analysts that the American family would be strengthened in the socially and politically conservative climate of the 1980s, the American family has continued a steady erosion in the last eight years, a trio of Washington researchers has found.

Writing in the "substantially revised" second edition of "What's Happening to the American Family? Tensions, Hopes and Realities" (Johns Hopkins University Press), the researchers conclude that burgeoning out-of-wedlock births, continuing growth in the number of female-headed families and a rising number of children living in deprivation are among "deeply troubling" changes in the American family structure.

"I would say it's social dynamite," said Richard S. Belous, an economist at the Conference Board, who co-authored the book with George Washington University economist Sar A. Levitan and researcher Frank Gallo.

In their updated book, first published in 1981, the researchers note, for example, that out-of-wedlock births climbed to 23% in 1986. In 1980, the figure was 18%; in 1960, 5%.

Poverty Rate Up

"If trends continue, out-of-wedlock births will soon overtake divorce as the primary cause of families headed by single mothers," they write.

Using government data, the researchers report also that the percentage of children living in poor families has risen from 18% in 1980 to 20% in the most recent statistics. Children living with a single parent now account for 24%, up from 20% in 1980. They list 2.3 million cohabiting couples, up from 1.6 million in 1980. The portion of homeowners dropped from 76% in 1980 to 72%.

Married mothers in the work force rose from 54% in 1980 to 64% in current statistics, the researchers found. In 1980, 41% of mothers with children under age 3 were in the labor force; most recently, 54%.

"Perhaps no American leader could have significantly influenced family structures," contend the authors, all specialists in labor economics. "Nevertheless, President Reagan's efforts toward reviving the family have proved demonstrably ineffective."

The President, Belous said, "has tried to use the White House as a bully pulpit to bring back the American family, and he has utterly failed."

The so-called traditional American family is no longer dominant, the researchers found. Just 10% of American households are now made up of a breadwinner-husband, homemaker-wife and children.

"Today's household structure is highly pluralistic and likely to remain so," they said.

Current projections, according to these researchers, indicate that 54% of first marriages by women ages 25 to 29 will end in divorce. Of the 70% who remarry, about half will divorce again.

About half of all children will live with a single parent at some time before their 16th birthday, Levitan, Gallo and Belous said. For black children, the number is nearly nine out of 10.

"These problems were very serious in 1981 when Ronald Reagan assumed office," Gallo said in a telephone interview. "He took an approach which has been demonstrably ineffective, and these problems are now sitting on the doorstep of whoever enters the White House."

"If you think a new administration is going to come to town and try to move the family in a different way, it may be very, very difficult," Belous said.

Still, while cautioning that "government inaction in the fact of severe current family difficulties is a serious cause for concern," the researchers shied away from what they called a "gloom and doom" position.

"Margaret Mead said a long time ago that the family is the toughest institution we have," Belous said. "And I think she was right."

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