What is the nation's economy doing to the American family?
Three characteristics stand out above all others:
* American families are concerned over housing.
* They are disillusioned with government, which has become less an ally than an adversary.
* Yet they remain full of inventiveness and independence.
Those are the broad conclusions of a series of interviews by the Monitor with five representative American families.
In each case, the families talked frankly about the family budget: what was coming in, what was going out, and how spending patterns were changing. They talked about the state of the domestic economy: interest rates, welfare, defense spending, tax cuts, and other things they saw as prominent landmarks on the financial horizon.
And they talked about federal programs. They were told that research for the series had begun with several briefings from senior officials on the White House staff. And in each case they were asked, ''If you had the President's ear, what would you tell him?''
The families come from widely differing income groups and from different cities across the nation. Dennis and Bonnye Feiock (pronounced ''Fowk'') live in New Albany, Ind., where they have just built their own home and where Dennis is a middle-management executive in nearby Louisville. Bob and Penny Faucett live in San Diego, where he is a highly paid senior executive with a nationwide real estate firm.
Abel and Alfear Artis operate their own peanut farm in Newsoms, Va.; their income last year was zero, and they are in debt $167,393 to the federal government's Farmers Home Administration (FmHA). George Rosen is a policeman in Cincinnati; his wife, Clara, works in a clothing store.
And Cheryl Langford lives with her three-year-old son, Haron, in Boston, where she recently began receiving welfare support and food stamps.
Talking with them, of course, is not the same as taking a public opinion survey. Yet in many ways they represent a cross section of the nation.
All (with the exception of Cheryl) are married. All have children - though not always the 2.2 children per family which, says the Census Bureau, represents the fertility rate among married women.
They represent a wide spectrum of experience, economically (welfare, working poor, blue-collar union, middle management, and upper executive), racially (the Artises and Langfords are black), and geographically.
Nor are they all of one political hue. Their opinions of President Reagan's programs range from unflagging support to ardent dislike.
Clara Rosen greatly admires the President's respect for ''discipline'' and his willingness to take charge. Cheryl Langford is convinced that his desire to trim food stamps and day-care support will increasingly teach poor urban children to hate. Between lie various shades of concern and applause.
* Because this is not a survey, the results cannot be reduced to neat numbers. But three broad conclusions can be drawn.
1. Concern over housing. To talk about family finances these days is to talk, inevitably, about housing costs. That may not be surprising: The cost of shelter has always been the greatest single expense in most family budgets, and buying a home is the largest investment most families ever make.
But the problem has recently grown more acute. Asked to define the central problems facing the nation, these families had little to say about inflation. Their concern lay in an area that touches housing: interest rates.
For the Rosens, who have owned their home for seven years, the problem shows up in the cost of loans for maintenance and reconstruction. Because they do much of the work themselves, their house is the central aspect of their domestic experience: both mentally and physically it demands the most attention and most work.
For the Feiocks and the Faucetts, the problems of construction are behind them. What remains are the payments for fairly new homes at high interest rates. For the Feiocks, in particular, mortgage payments are the central determinant shaping the family budget.
For the Artises and the Langfords, the challenge comes in the fear of transiency. Abel Artis may have to move if the FmHA carries through with its plan to foreclose on his property. Cheryl Langford knows that she is one of only a handful of women in Boston who have found federally subsidized ''Section 8'' housing. These two (more than the other three) would be seriously uprooted by a change in housing: So slender is the family budget, and so crucial a part of it is housing, that a move would entail a wholesale change of life style.
Perhaps the most instructive case is that of the Feiocks. Young, bright, and hard-working, Dennis has every reason to climb the corporate success ladder by moving from place to place around the country. But he won't move. Part of the reason: housing. He and Bonnye have just built their dream house. On their scale of priorities, stability has moved ahead of career promotion. In an individual way, he reflects what corporate planners have seen coming: a slowdown in the mobility of Americans, due partly to the high costs of home purchases.
If Dennis is on the leading edge of a trend--if America is becoming, like Europe, a place in which people spend decades or lifetimes in a single house--then the country could be headed toward profound change. What began as simply a financial phenomenon--high interest rates--could produce far-reaching effects on the nation's attitudes toward success, family, and leisure.
2. Disillusionment with government. Coupled with this concern over housing is a bias against federal programs--or at least against governmental red tape. Oddly enough, that happens as much at the bottom of the scale as at the top. One expects Bob Faucett and Dennis Feoick to praise the Republican administration for getting the government out of their wallets, and they do. The surprise comes from the Artises and Cheryl Langford.
These two families are no partisans of President Reagan, to be sure. Abel, if he had the President's ear, would tell him that ''the administration is putting the small farm out of business'' because ''the big man wants the little man to work for him.''
Back in Boston, Cheryl is plenty angry with last October's withdrawal of Title XX funds for her son's slot at a day-care center. She blames it on the Reagan budget; it was the final blow that shoved her onto welfare.
These are responses of the moment. Underneath them, in all five families, lies a more profound feeling: that government is simply too vast to be effective , and that it cannot deliver on its promises.
While that attitude is most cogently articulated in the upper-income brackets , the effects are seen most clearly at the lower end. Cheryl would like to avoid government altogether. She never intended to become a welfare mother, and wants nothing more than independence. Her dealings with welfare agencies have been strained and unpleasant.
The case of Abel Artis is even more telling. Having no equity and no proved managerial skill, he was offered his six-digit FmHA loan four years ago. It was tantalizing, and he took it. But with it, apparently, came no particular counseling, no help in planning, no courses in farm management. He was simply given the money and set adrift on a sea of complexity. Three years of disastrous peanut harvest followed. He is now sinking.
The relations of the Artises and the Langfords to the federal government, therefore, are complex. On the one hand, they are benefited by FmHA loans and day-care centers. On the other hand, however, the benefits they have received--day-care support that is cut off in midstream, loan programs that provide nothing but money--may be among the government's crueler hoaxes.
Would the Artises now be better off if they were still sharecroppers? Would Cheryl be better off to have put her trust in something other than Title XX? Perhaps not. But to send them back to square one after leading them along with such promises seems to ensure disillusionment.
Neither of these families is by nature ungenerous, nor inclined to bite the hand that feeds it. Yet both now see government agencies not as allies but as adversaries.
3. Inventiveness and independence. Part of the reason for this adversarial relationship, in fact, may be the strong foundation of independence underlying each of these families. In the face of a declining economy, all of them exhibit a sense of inventiveness, even ingenuity. None of them is collapsing under economic pressures. Rather, they are working harder to make ends meet. The words used by a neighborhood child to describe George Rosen--''When he wrings out a sponge, he really wrings it out!''--describe a trait common to all these families: a belief in the values of work, and a desire to be independent of government support or intervention.
This characteristic, perhaps, is a modern version of the Puritan work ethic. Facing financial challenges, the Faucetts tighten up on spending for clothes and utilities. Dennis Feoick takes a teaching job in the evenings, does some farming , and fixes his own lawn mower when it breaks. Clara Rosen plans her cooking carefully to minimize waste, while her husband free-lances as an insurance investigator. At the other end of the scale, Cheryl Langford, who clung to her low-paying job for two years rather than call herself a ''welfare mother,'' is now in hair-dressing school. She wants to get back on her own as soon as possible. And Abel Artis pushes doggedly ahead, hanging on as long as he can rather than drifting back into sharecropping.
It is Abel, in fact, who articulates the American ideal when he says, in his rough-hewn way, that ''Any man wants to try to better hisself, coming up through life.'' He is describing a streak of independence that helps explain why this country is less inclined to socialism than some of its European partners.
If there is a focal point for disillusionment in all five families, it is the welfare system. None of them cares for it - although Cheryl sees it as a necessity. The Rosens are the most vehement in their dislike, however: For them it is the archetypal disincentive program, luring people away from hard work.
Is their distaste merely aimed at welfare fraud? The examples suggest that it is. Underneath, however, lies a more fundamental moral objection. About one-third of America's welfare mothers are unmarried. In the absence of strong religious, cultural, or social proscriptions against premarital sexual activity--and in a society where it is unfashionable to object to unmarried couples living together - there seems little to prevent the kind of situation Cheryl faced: unwanted pregnancy and an unplanned child.
The result: Cheryl stands condemned for something she was never encouraged to avoid. Like Abel Artis - whose letter from the FmHA cites ''poor managerial ability'' as a reason for foreclosure--she was perhaps never given the tools, either educational or ethical, to help her resist temptation. The nation ends up paying--quite literally--the consequences.
It is that kind of payment that bothers the Rosens, who maintain a staunch sense of morality. It bothers the Faucetts, who see government as incapable of stemming the tide it seems to be supporting. It bothers the Feiocks, who see the danger of disincentives but also see the danger, as Dennis says, of turning things around ''too fast.'' And it bothers Abel Artis. ''There's too many folks on welfare who could work,'' he says, adding, ''I'd rather work.''
What, then, can we conclude? Three things. First, American families are not crumbling away. They are still strong, still inventive, still fundamentally moral in their perceptions.
Second, if these families are any indication, the nation is a bit farther to the right than many news commentaries (and politicians) suggest. These families are not inclined to turn to government as a solver of problems. They don't see government as an institution of first recourse. For them, it is a subsidiary, necessary in its functions but rather clumsy in its approach.
Third, the majority of these families still gives President Reagan the nod of approval. But it seems a bit tentative. They await further results.