TOWARD the end of his State of the Union address Jan. 25, President Clinton summed up one of the most urgent challenges facing the nation by saying, ``We can't renew our country until we realize that governments don't raise children. Families do.''
Few subjects have been given more lip service in recent years than the family; politicians of all stripes have sought to claim ``family values'' as the subject dearest to their hearts. This obligatory rhetoric is easy and costs nothing. But this latest reappearance in a State of the Union message may signal that the issue will finally transcend pieties and find a place on the national agenda. The subject is taking on greater immediacy as more people see a direct link between high crime rates and the decline of the family.
The American family has never been as picture-perfect as sentimentalists would like to portray it. Behind the picket fences and pristine facades of 1950s suburbia lurked domestic problems no one dared talk about.
Today, of course, every problem gets discussed. And this new honesty, however useful it might be, has the double effect of making yesterday's families seem more ideal than some of them were and making today's families appear more fragile than many of them are.
Still, social changes during the past 30 years have profoundly altered family structures. They have taken a toll on family life, in some cases weakening emotional or economic security. Consider these changes:
* Nonparental child care. In two-parent and single-parent homes alike, the march of mothers into the paid work force represents one of the most dramatic social changes of the past 20 years. Eleven million children under the age of six now have mothers who work outside the home, either part-time or full time, requiring parents to entrust their children to other caregivers during working hours.
* Divorce. Each year more than a million American children are affected by their parents' separation or divorce. Although for many couples divorce is the least harmful solution to a troubled marriage, family advocates recognize the high price children can pay when a family breaks apart.
* Out-of-wedlock childbearing. More than a million babies a year are born to unmarried women, nearly a third of all births in the United States. Although 70 percent of these births are to women age 20 and over, the birthrate among teenagers has been rising for five consecutive years. Projections show that if current trends continue, by the end of the decade 40 percent of all births in the US and an astonishing 80 percent of minority births will be to single mothers.
* Fatherlessness. Rising rates of divorce, single parenthood, and desertion have produced what is being called a ``dad deficit'' of enormous proportions. Last year biological fathers were absent in an estimated 35 percent of households with children. Beyond the lack of emotional support these numbers suggest, there exists a lack of financial support. In 1989, $5 billion in court-ordered child support went unpaid, pushing countless children and their mothers below the poverty line. Although unpaid child support is not the only factor, 1 in 5 American children lives in poverty.
As one solution, a federal law that took effect last month requires employers to withhold child-support payments from employees' wages. Some states also are instituting programs to establish paternity at birth. These combined efforts will assure more children of a measure of financial stability and a better chance of establishing a permanent relationship with their fathers.
Yet until noncustodial parents, fathers and mothers alike, contribute to the support of their children out of love and a sense of moral obligation rather than simply legal duress, there will be little true progress in restoring greater stability to the family.
The much-publicized ``crisis'' of the family may serve to acknowledge the importance of the family, suggesting correctly that a sound, loving family is the first requirement for solving a lot of other ``crises.'' But if ``family crisis'' is taken as a scare phrase, pointing to an institution supposedly in ruin, the term is misused. There is a resilience and a durability to families in particular and the family in general.
Furthermore, other social institutions - churches and temples, schools, and corporations - are increasing their efforts to support the needs of the families within them precisely because they recognize that strong families are essential to their own vitality. This support is crucial. For while the family represents the smallest unit of society - a unit whose success ultimately depends on the determination of parents to do their own job, as Mr. Clinton stated - it is not a self-contained unit. It requires support from within and from without.
The debate about what, in fact, a family is will go on. But the institution per se seems less in question as the century closes. Amid disagreements about which ``family values'' to endorse, the value of the family itself is almost unanimously upheld. That may be the best news of all.