Traditional American family is returning, report says Sociologists challenge research group's findings


WASHINGTON -- After two decades of social pressures that caused many to fear that it might dissolve, the traditional American family is making a comeback in the 1990s, a Washington research group said yesterday in issuing a profile of the country's population.

The report, by the Population Reference Bureau Inc., said increases in the number of two-parent households with children, decreases in the divorce rate and other changes suggested that the American family was stabilizing.

"We don't look and we don't function anything like we did 20 or 30 years ago," Carol J. De Vita, author of the report, said at a news conference. "And it's true that the American family has undergone some very radical changes in the past 25 years. But what I want to emphasize is that the major changes in the family structure are probably passed."

The group is a private, nonprofit research organization that uses Census Bureau data and other information to periodically paint demographic portraits of the country.

Although it is highly respected and its former director of policy research, Martha Farnsworth Riche, is now director of the Census Bureau, some demographers and sociologists questioned the report, saying its conclusions were overly optimistic.

In the report, "The United States at Mid-Decade," Ms. De Vita said, the number of two-parent households with children increased by 700,000 from 1990 to 1995, reversing a 20-year decline. She also said that the divorce rate slowed to 20.5 divorces per 1,000 married women in 1994 from 23 divorces per 1,000 in 1980 and that the increase in the number of births to unmarried women slowed to a 2 percent annual average increase in the early 1990s, down from a 6 percent annual rise in the 1980s.

Ms. De Vita attributed these changes to the fact that the baby-boom generation, which makes up a third of the country's population, has entered middle age. After delaying marriage, and then often divorcing and marrying again, baby boomers are beginning to settle into the task of raising families.

"Middle age is the time of life when family responsibilities come to the fore," Ms. De Vita said.

But Reynolds Farley, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, said: "The numbers I have looked at don't show any reversal of these trends. There may be some moderation, but the overall trends remain the same."

While the report painted an optimistic outlook for the traditional American family, it also provided evidence of other recent economic and demographic trends that have fueled anxiety in some segments of the population and helped propel the presidential candidacy of political commentator Pat Buchanan.

While the report noted that the number of legal immigrants was declining, it also said 9 percent of the population was born in a foreign country, the highest level of foreign-born residents since the end of World War II.

Pub Date: 3/07/96

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