Even in affluent Howard, some families struggle

WILEY A. HALL

October 22, 1992|By WILEY A. HALL

The homes along High Tor Hill in Columbia sit upon broad green lawns that are speckled, as if by design, with brightly colored autumn leaves.

The comfortable-looking houses are two-story brick colonials, framed by trees and shrubbery, with smoking chimneys and asphalt driveways that curve gently into two-car garages.

It is early afternoon on a sparkling autumn day. Two women, dressed in sweat suits, jog by. Another woman pushes a baby in a stroller. A gray-haired man is raking leaves.

As the commercial says: It doesn't get any better than this.

All in all, the quiet neighborhood presents a Norman Rockwell portrait of the American Dream: own a home, raise a family, work hard, retire in comfort.

But Columbia, remember, is in Howard County, one of the 25 most affluent counties in the nation. For most of us, this version of the traditional American Dream is beginning to seem increasingly unrealistic.

For instance, the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington reported Monday that the traditional family of breadwinner dad and homemaker mom is fast disappearing.

This latest study joins a host of others based on the 1990 Census that show: An increasing number of children are growing DTC up in poverty; Americans are delaying parenthood and having fewer children; it's getting harder and harder for young couples to own a home, and couples that do are afraid to trade up to larger homes.

The most ominous news of all: More and more Americans fear that their children will have a lower standard of living than they themselves enjoy.

While it may be true that the only unchanging fact of life in American society is change, never before have the changes seemed so scary for so many.

Judith Weitz, of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, tries to be reassuring. The American family is not "going to hell in a handbasket," she says. "There is no suggestion that families are being devalued, or that they are not the major force in the lives of children," she says. "What we're finding is that what constitutes the so-called 'normal' family life is changing.

"And," Ms. Weitz says, "not all of the changes are bad."

Her organization found that 71 percent of American children still live in two-parent families, although many of those families were "reconstituted" through divorce and remarriage. Both adults worked in the majority of two-parent families. Such households are far less likely to fall into poverty.

The Center for the Study of Public Policy also found a dramatic increase in "subfamilies" -- single parents who move in with their own parents or other relatives to make ends meet.

Maryland families also are working harder, and making greater sacrifices, to grasp what they can of the American Dream. According to U.S. Census data since 1970, home ownership -- the proportion of owner-occupied dwellings -- has increased steadily in the state, from 55.3 percent to 60 percent.

But to accomplish this, couples are having fewer children and having them later in life, while more mothers are compelled to work even when the children are very young.

Despite all these efforts, the typical family sees its mortgage payments eating up an increasing proportion of household income, according to the state planning office.

"Women were the salvation for the family budget," says Ms. Weitz. "Even so, families are working harder but standing still financially."

This is true even in islands of affluence such as Howard County, where the median family income is $54,348 and where the average home costs $189,000. Unemployment in Howard has more than doubled since 1990, from 2.1 percent to 5.4 percent.

In 1990, 30 percent of all Howard County households included grandparents or other relatives -- possibly as a way of cutting housing and child-care costs.

"Families here are not putting off home ownership," says Tom Pirritano, president of the Howard County Realtors Association, "but they may be making greater and greater sacrifices to get there."

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