US families are increasing at a decreasing rate

Is there a change in ''social climate'' in America? Specifically, is the divorce rate coming down? Surprised demographers in the Census Bureau have discovered that the 1982-83 increase in United States households was the smallest in 20 years.

Is that due to the recession or, as some think, to a tapering off of the divorce rate which, by splitting up families, is a major factor in creating new so-called households. (A household is a unit maintained by families of two or more related persons).

The report terms it a ''dramatic departure'' from earlier household formation trends. It urges caution in interpretation, however, since it's based on just one year.

Anthropologists and social historians note that the family is the only social institution that is present in every village, tribe, people, or nation-state known through history. It is the core institution in society. Observers watch it in America, where the standard of living is considered by many to be the highest in the world.

A census report issued here shows 83.9 million US households in March 1983. This is 20.5 million more than in 1970. But the increase is relatively small.

During the 1970s, households increased at about 1.6 million a year. But in the past year, there has been little increase for the first time in 20 years. What has happened?

Demographer Steve Rawlings at the Census Bureau says the blip on the scale may be due to the recession or to a change in the ''social climate.'' It could be a sign that the divorce rate has stabilized or is declining.

In a book ''Here to Stay: American Families in the Twentieth Century,'' Mary Jo Bane of Wellesley College argues that the American family is not imperiled.

Divorce rates have risen, she says, but at the same time people live longer. Death rates have plummeted and divorce rates have not climbed rapidly enough to offset the drop. Many marriages stay intact.

The book points out that the majority of divorced persons remarry and few wed more than twice. In general the remarriage rate has kept pace with the divorce rate, it reports.

The Census Bureau reports that ''the net annual increase in nonfamily households (people living alone or sharing their home only with nonrelatives) has tapered off.''

Bureau demographers say recent population trends do not account for the changing patterns in household formation.

On the contrary, people born during the post World War II ''baby boom,'' now roughly 20 to 35 years old, are at ages during which they may be expected to form households at a high rate.

''Thus, it appears that this year's changes may be a response to a shift in economic conditions and/or to a different social climate,'' the report concludes.

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