The American family of the year 2000 will be looked back on as little changed in form and structure and "more successful, especially for women and children, than the family of today." So spoke scholars of "Middletown USA" in the 1970s, not knowing that in 1996 some small evidence against family decline would be bolstering their views.
For one thing, the Census Bureau has altered its projection that 50 percent of couples getting married will get divorced. In recent years the bureau has reduced that figure to four couples out of 10. It reports that 78 percent of American families are headed by married couples. And most of the nation's children live with a married couple, though not necessarily with biological parents.
The rate of babies born to unwed mothers has gone down for the first time in almost two decades, declining by 4 percent since 1994, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Despite all the change, stress, and "dysfunction" - which need the best remedial efforts by society, education, and religion - the family displays more continuity than disruption, as those scholars found and predicted in the '70s. Sociologist Theodore Caplow and others revisited Muncie, Ind., the "Middletown" where Robert and Helen Lynd had found so much social change in the 1920s. In half a century happy marriages had increased, and kinships had been strengthened in such ways as increased sharing of time and ideas between parents and children. Yet, according to the survey, even happy families often accepted the notion that the American family was in decline and they were fortunate exceptions.
Today's media load of family stress may lead to similar impressions - even as the new Census and other reports offer hints of problems plateauing instead of getting worse. Differences in perception may arise because the times have altered Tolstoy's classic line that happy families are all alike (and unhappy families unhappy in their own way). Now families with inner resources are achieving happiness while remaining unalike in many ways.
Among conspicuous differences is the rise in families headed by one man or woman, usually a woman. Often these families have problems of poverty that rightly gain the attention of society.
Less publicized but worth a new Tolstoy's insight perhaps are the families, in all their variety, that creatively and constructively adapt to the changes in society - and that do their part to change the changes that are not good for all.