A future for families

Today's economic adversities are bringing out strengths in the so-called declining American family which confirm scholarly studies that it is not declining after all. Americans can take heart from recent findings as they cope with the situation reflected in the latest jobless rate, the worst since the end of the Great Depression in 1941.

There could have been no better time for the encouraging results of exhaustive family research to come out. Consider ''Middletown Families: Fifty Years of Change and Continuity,'' by University of Virginia sociologist Theodore Caplow and others. They found continuity dominating change when they revisited Muncie, Indiana, the ''Middletown'' of Robert and Helen Lynd's groundbreaking research in the 1920s. They found echoes of nationwide tendencies in strong kinship ties, increased happy marriages, more sharing of time and ideas between parents and children. They saw the future of the American family to be even more successful than today, especially from the point of view of women and children.

Yet the survey found that even happy families often believed the ''myth'' that the American family in general was in decline -- and they were fortunate exceptions. ''Middletown Families'' acknowledges objections that could be raised, such as that a loss of vitality in the family institution may be indicated by the recent increases in premarital sexual relations, illegitimate births, and the number of people living alone. But the authors find that America is still the ''most marrying'' of modernized societies, that the survival of the American family is not severely threatened by contrary trends.

Television viewers have been able to draw some of their own conclusions from the public-TV series, ''Middletown,'' also dealing with the people of Muncie. The impact of economic problems on a family was illustrated in the segment on a father trying to keep a restaurant afloat with the help of wife and children.

A meeting of the clan hinted at the strains and joys of trying to get together in spite of differences. Why does the father put himself through all the trouble and the worry for his floundering business? He tries to explain that just because he worries ''doesn't mean I'm not happy.''

Here may be a clue to the inner resilience of many Americans which may not be evident to those who see only the struggles they are going through.

Recently Monitor correspondent Robert Press spent several days traveling through Southern counties where unemployment had reached more than 30 percent. He found few signs of bitterness, many signs of pride, energy, and optimism, with burdens on the jobless lightened to some extent by family and friends gathering around.

For the current weekly series, ''Five American families,'' Rushworth Kidder interviewed families in various places at various income levels. They display further evidence of traditional American virtues - hard work, inventiveness, determination to be financially independent. One executive goes so far as to question tax inequities that are in his own favor. Though he probably wouldn't own as nice a house if he couldn't deduct the interest payments, he would give up such a break to help start the economy moving.

The academic research and the individual examples seem to add up. Times change. Things get tough. But there's life in the American family yet.

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