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Changing times test families' strength.

Dramatic social, demographic, and economic changes during the past 30 years have transformed the American family. For many children and parents the experiences of family life are different today than a generation ago. Families are smaller. More children live with only one parent, usually their mothers, and many lack the consistent involvement and support of their fathers. More mothers as well as fathers hold jobs and go to work each day.

Yet children are now the poorest group in America, and if they live only with their mother and she is not employed, they are almost certain to be poor. Moreover, many of the routines of family life have changed; regardless of family income, parents and children spend less time together.

By now, these changes are quite familiar. Indeed, they have been widely studied and discussed in recent years: scholars have sought to explain them, journalists have publicized them, and government has responded with many new policies and programs.

Although their causes and consequences are still not fully understood, it is clear that they have had profound effects on family roles and on relationships between fathers, mothers, and children and between families and the communities in which they live. Observers from many quarters worry that these changes have had largely deleterious effects on family life and have caused a dramatic decline in the quality of life for many American children.

Perhaps the most dramatic social change of the past 20 years has been the steady march of mothers into the paid labor force. Between 1970 and 1990, the proportion of mothers with children under age six who were working or looking for work outside their homes rose from 32 percent to 58 percent. Today, approximately 10.9 million children under age six, including 1.7 million babies under one year and 9.2 million toddlers and preschoolers, have mothers in the paid labor force.

Mothers of school-age children are even more likely to be in the labor force. In 1990 over 74 percent of women whose youngest child was between the ages of 6 and 13 were working or looking for paid work. Approximately 17.4 million children, more than 65 percent of all children in the latter age group, had working mothers in 1990. Among employed mothers, nearly 70 percent whose youngest child is under six and more than 74 percent whose youngest child is school age work full time.

Historically, unmarried mothers have been far more likely to work than married mothers. Yet the sharpest increase in labor force participation among mothers over the past 20 years has been among married mothers, especially those with very young children.

More than 66 percent of married mothers are now working or looking for work outside their homes. In past generations, most of these women would have quit their jobs and stayed at home when they married or had children, but today they are remaining at work. Women who wait to have their first baby until after age 25 and women with four or more years of college are more likely to continue working than are younger mothers and those who fail to complete high school.

The reasons that individual mothers decide to go to work or stay in the labor force undoubtedly vary from one family to another. On an aggregate level, however, complex social, cultural, and economic factors have fueled this trend in the United States and most other developed countries. Increases in the number of available jobs, especially in the service sector; successful legal efforts to expand women's access to the workplace; the continued influence of the women's movement; and the mechanization of many household tasks have all undoubtedly contributed.

The declining income and employment opportunities of young men, especially those who lack skills, and the difficulty of maintaining a secure standard of living on one income have also added momentum.

Changing patterns of mothers' employment represent more than a mere shift in American attitudes or fluctuations in short-term macroeconomic conditions, although these have clearly played a part. Over the past generation, the opportunity costs of staying at home, primarily in the form of foregone earnings, have increased for mothers.

Some scholars call for a return to the single-earner "family wage" system of the 1940s. Others, however, suggest that the movement of mothers into the paid workforce is likely to become even stronger in the future as projected labor shortages make women increasingly essential to the shrinking labor pool. To date, social adjustments--in the workplace, in communities, and even in families--have been rather slow to take root. Over the coming years, society's ability to adapt to the changing needs of working fathers, working mothers, and their children will be increasingly essential to the health and vitality of families and to the well-being of their children.

A call for papers

The Advisory Council of the National League of Cities, charged with carrying out NLC's Futures Process, wants to hear from city officials about ways local government can create "Family-Friendly Communities."

Approaches to the needs of children and their families most often focus only on social service intervention. Through the Futures Process, the Advisory Council seeks to broaden these approaches, augmenting attention to basic social services with a "community perspective." Government can support families by spurring the involvement of neighborhood and voluntary organizations and other institutions. The futures process will examine ways which all levels of government can spur this family-friendly community.

The Advisory Council invites written summaries describing local action in your community. All submissions will be used by the NLC Advisory Council in this year's discussions on creating Family-Friendly Communities. The descriptions will be made available to other cities through NLC's Children and Families in Cities project and through the NLC Municipal Reference Service. Some descriptions will be highlighted in the weekly installments of the "Futures Forum" on this page. More detailed presentations to the Advisory Council may by asked of some cities.

Please submit descriptions and statements, up to ten double-spaced pages, to William Barnes, Director, Center of Research and Policy Development, National League of Cities, 1301 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20004. Questions may be directed to the Center at 202-626-3030.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:part 2; includes related request for local action reports; Futures Forum: Toward 'Family Friendly Communities'
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Feb 17, 1992
Previous Article:NFBPA meeting stresses excellence.
Next Article:Family structure, roles shifting.

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