Survey attempts to gauge well-being of American family
Chicago Tribune, October 15, 2003

NEW YORK - (KRT) - A new survey intended to take the pulse of the American family and determine its overall well-being has found what is being dubbed "The American Paradox" - the idea that families feel essentially positive about themselves and their country even while admitting fears and facts that would seem to indicate the contrary.

For example:

Most American families rate their financial well-being as "good," even though nearly 33 percent of them report being moderately or heavily in debt.

Nearly 90 percent of families define themselves as mentally healthy, even while 30 percent of them confess feeling stress, depression, anxiety, insomnia and loneliness on a regular basis.

About 86 percent of families describe their communities as either "good" or "somewhat good," despite the fact that 31 percent of them say they would like to move somewhere else.

The survey - spearheaded by Reader's Digest magazine and conducted by the Gallup Organization - will be conducted twice each year, and it is intended to be as much of a barometer for judging the state of American family as the Consumer Price Index has been for gauging the nation's economy over the years.

"When we do this over time and we see even slight changes, that will illustrate trends in the family," said David Moore, vice president and senior analyst at Gallup.

The survey determined the final score of the Family Index based on questions in four categories: a family's financial situation; its health and health care; its personal relationships; its community. More than 2,000 family households were sampled in the telephone survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percent.

The survey was constructed so that the family index score could range from a low of minus 200 to a high of plus 200. Any score above zero meant the response was positive to some degree; below zero meant the response was negative to some degree; zero would mean statistical ambivalence.

"The index overall came out at positive 83," said Moore. "That said for us that it's really a pretty positive state that the American family is in."

Of the four categories, the heath and health care portion scored highest at 100. The community portion had a score of 99. The relationship segment came in with a score of 90. The financial index fared the worst, with a score of 66.

The index, unveiled in Manhattan on Wednesday, is the brainchild of Reader's Digest magazine, which has been on American coffee tables since 1922. The magazine launched the index because it wanted to know how an age of terrorism and financial uncertainty had affected American families' personal relationships, faith and feelings about the future.

The state of the family in this first index, which will serve as a benchmark for all the surveys to come, seems to be overwhelmingly - and, at times, inexplicably - positive.

Although the vast majority of families (84 percent) rank their quality of health care as either "good" or "somewhat good," close to half of American families admitted having difficulty paying for health care. More than half of the people earning $50,000 or less said that sometimes health care was simply not affordable, including 80 percent of people who earned less than $20,000 a year.

On the work front, most people seem drawn to some kind of employment. The survey found that 7 in 10 workers would continue working even if they didn't need the money. But here comes the paradox: Almost 40 percent of people also responded that they spent too little time with their families - often because of work.

None of these numbers came as a surprise to Bridget Maher, a marriage and family analyst at the Family Research Center in Washington. She noticed the same trends when she was compiling data last year for a project titled "Family Portrait."

"The biggest paradox of all is usually between what Americans say they want and value and then what they do," she said.

Some other surprising findings:

It would seem a family would have less debt as income increased, but the survey instead found a consistent percentage of people in debt at all income levels except for the very highest.

Half of all respondents admitted that either they or someone in the household was significantly overweight, but 37 percent said the health impact of that was slight to non-existent, despite vast medical evidence to the contrary.

Seventy percent of parents admitted screaming at their children, more than one-third administered corporal punishment and 17 percent reported swearing at their children or calling them names like "lazy" or "dumb."

Joan Aldous, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, said Wednesday that any attempt to get a bead on an institution as diverse as the American family is fraught with pitfalls. But Aldous applauded the latest effort.

"The family is comprised of the citizenry of our country," she said, "so getting their feeling on their day-to-day circumstances in some of the most intimate aspects of their lives will help us understand how they perform on their jobs or how they interact with their community, their state and their nation. The health of the family affects the basic welfare of the country in many regards."

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