Family ties still bind

For more than forty years the American family, like the nation which surrounds it, has been gripped by fast-moving change. As divorces mounted and concerns grew, some doomsayers even forecast the end of the family unit as we have known it. Yet welcome new evidence now indicates that despite fundamental changes in society and the family structure since the start of World War II, Americans are showing a resurgence of support for the family.

Much of the change was precipitated by events. On the farms the shift from literal horsepower to machines was at its height in 1940; this mechanization freed millions of Americans to live and work in cities. Today fewer than three percent of Americans live on farms; in 1940, thirty percent did.

Much of the change toward equalizing relationships between men and women was overdue. For instance, when the US entered World War II in December, 1941, the ensuing shortage of male factory workers finally made a place in society for married women to be employed; shortly before the war working women still were being fired for having committed the ''crime'' of marrying. Today society agrees married women may decide whether to be home or to work in the marketplace, depending in part on their economic needs; sixty percent of wives do work outside the home.

Some changes are negative, such as the high divorce rate, casual sexual encounters, and the practice of living together before marriage or instead of it.

Yet the new figures indicate that these trends may be stabilizing or even being turned back in favor of a stronger sense of family. The statistics may reflect a quest for commitment and community among those who have found unsatisfactory those human relationships without these elements.

The new Census Bureau figures show that fewer new households were set up this year than in any of the preceding 20. In recent years the large growth in the number of new households has signified a rising divorce rate, inasmuch as two households replace one when a marriage dissolves. Thus the Census Bureau findings may indicate that the divorce rate now has stabilized or has begun to decline.

Additionally a major new study of American couples, married and unmarried, reports that more than two-thirds of married Americans are faithful to their spouses, despite the enticements from the entertainment world and other directions which would urge them to be otherwise. The study, financed by a grant from the National Science Foundation, also indicated that Americans now seek earnestly to make their marriages succeed.

Much remains to be done to help reestablish the vigor of the American family; challenges still come from many directions. But success can be achieved by combining the strengths of the past with the improvements of present, in a country which is ''one nation, under God.''

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