Crisis in the family? Not so, says poll. Findings show a high degree of satisfaction within families; divorce statistics are clarified

For over a decade now, there's been talk of a crisis in the American family. Single-parent households, dual-earner families, lack of child-care facilities, rising divorce - all have been seen as facets of this crisis.

The conclusion seemed unavoidable: The family was weakening.

Now, pollster Louis Harris has come out with a survey that casts the American family in a much different light.

Last winter, the Harris organization phoned 3,001 families, representing a cross section of Americans geographically and economically.

Its conclusions, published this summer, indicate that about 8 out of 10 families are satisfied with such elements of domestic happiness as relationships among family members, management of family finances, and the balance between work and leisure time.

In the course of his research, pollster Harris also took a hard look at divorce statistics.

The commonly stated figure, that one 1 out of 2 marriages in the United States ends in divorce, is erroneous, he says. You can't simply take the almanac figures of 2.2 new marriages a year and 1.1 million divorces, and assume that half of all marriages are breaking up, he explains.

There are 57.6 million existing marriages in the US now, some of which took place years ago, some of which are new. Of those, a little over a million are dissolving each year, which results in a proportion far lower than 50 percent, Harris says.

The latest figures, according to Kathryn London, a demographer with the National Center for Health Statistics, indicate that 2.15 percent of marriages ended in divorce in 1984. She says that rate has remained constant for the last decade or so.

``If you look at all women ever married,'' she adds, ``24 percent have been divorced at least once.''

If current marriage trends continue, Ms. London affirms, half of all recent marriages would eventually end in divorce by a date early in the next century.

Harris acknowledges that this projection exists. But it's certainly not happening now, he says, ``and I'll wait and see if they're right.''

Harris suspects that the widely publicized, and statistically unsound, notion of a 50 percent current divorce rate has scared some people away from the altar. ``How many young people, thinking of marriage, tend to have it planted in their heads that their marriage will likely break up?'' he asks.

One thing seems clear from the Harris survey, conducted for Philip Morris Companies, which has diversified into food products. There's an overwhelmingly positive feeling among Americans about the importance of having a family. Ninety-one percent of those polled said they'd miss family life if they didn't have it.

``The survey gives us reason for optimism and hope,'' says Lee Salk, a child psychologist at Cornell University and a columnist on family matters. ``I must say I'm one of the people who's been a purveyor of the view that the American family is in trouble.''

In his view, strong family life is at the heart of civilization.

``I'm very pleasantly impressed with [the survey findings],'' says Dr. Salk. ``It tells us we're still a good society, a good country.''

But he also sees cause for concern in some of the Harris findings.

By a margin of 2 to 1, parents surveyed expressed a preference for having both parents work instead of having the wife stay home to raise the children. While recognizing that economic necessity may lie behind this choice, Salk emphasizes that ``parents need to spend adequate time with their children each day.''

He says he's seen many unhappy children in day-care centers he has visited across the US.

``What we need is the kind of child-care facility where a parent can spend some time, an hour a day, with the child - and that should be mandated.''

The survey highlights the need to make child care a matter of public policy, he says.

Another element of the survey that should catch the attention of policymakers is its identification of a significant minority of Americans for whom family life is anything but satisfying, Harris asserts.

``Seventy-nine percent of families are in relatively good shape; 21 percent are in dismal shape,'' the pollster says.

The condition of that 21 percent - largely single-parent, minority, female-headed households - warrants the word ``crisis,'' according to Harris.

The most poignant statistic from the survey, he says, came in response to the question ``Do you want your life style to be that of your children?''

Overall, three-quarters said ``Yes.'' But 77 percent of that dissatisfied minority said, emphatically, ``No way!'' according to Harris. The needs of that critical minority of families have to be addressed, he says.

Commenting on the positive responses registered by the Harris survey, clinical psychiatrist Kyle Dean Pruett of Yale University notes that he's still seeing plenty of people in his practice who are having difficulty with family life. But he's not surprised that Americans have a predominantly upbeat view of family life.

In assessing attitudes toward family, says Dr. Pruett, it's important to keep in mind the difference between what he calls ``the idea of the family'' and what people may actually be experiencing at home.

Even though family life often presents challenges and frustrations, it's something people vitally need - especially in an era when so much in life is becoming ``depersonalized,'' he says.

As he puts it, ``We're `pre-wired' to belong to families, with `outlets' ready to be `plugged into' by fathers, mothers, siblings.''

Harris makes essentially the same point: ``The urge and need for family were documented in the study.''

Some signs of family happiness

In their sample of 3,001 American households, Louis Harris and Associates Inc. asked 22 questions designed to assess the quality of family life. Among the findings:

89 percent of the households said they were satisfied with the relationship with their spouse or the person they live with. Among those with children, 93 percent reported satisfaction with the quality of the relationship.

86 percent were pleased with how family members rally behind one another in a crisis.

86 percent reported they were satisfied with the way the interests of each family member are respected.

The same majority, 86 percent, said they were satisfied with the way family finances are handled. But with blacks, divorced people, and female-headed families, this figure fell to about 32 percent.

85 percent said the pleasures in family life outweigh the troubles.

Among those who work, 83 percent reported satisfaction with their jobs.

82 percent were satisfied with the way work is shared around the house. This figure dropped to half among those having trouble with their spouses, divorced people, female single heads of households, those having financial problems, and those with children 12 or older.

77 percent expressed satisfaction with the balance between work and leisure in their lives.

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