Much has been said and written about the problems of families in recent years. Research by General Mills Inc., for example, shows that inflationary pressures are forcing one of two American families to cut back on essential preventive health care.
To some commentators, any concern expressed about the survival of families is seen as the use of code words to hide real prejudice or specific social goals, such as the passage of antiabortion laws. Some people blame government for not doing enough to help families. Others say government should have nothing to do with families in an organized way.
All of these reactions have one thing in common: They seek to evade the responsibility of giving serious attention to a vital but troubled American institution.
Even people who acknowledge that there is a problem with families have failed to offer a clear description of the symptoms of the illness -- much less an agenda of recommended solutions that has broad credibility. A national conference on families earlier this year generally did not distinguish itself.
But disorganized efforts are accepted elements in a democracy, and it's not realistic to expect much unity of purpose or goals to emerge from tens of millions of individual family clusters, large and small.
Still, people need help in an increasingly complex economic system where a mother or father has to spend the equivalent of five working days just to figure out where to deposit the family's paycheck(s) in the NOW account era, and needs the training of a lawyer and CPA combined to deal with tax records, as well as a home computer to store all the information and education -- in computer language to boot.
One colleague asked last week, while sweating over some insurance forms: "Why do they need my signature six times?" This is just one example of how much time is being taken away from the individual or family as U.S. businesses and national and local governments shift the burden of paperwork from the office to the home. Insurance-form paperwork -- including the whole process of taking paper back and forth from doctor's offices, making immediate payments and often waiting months for insurance company compensation -- add up to a significant reason why some health care is given low priority.
At the national conference on families earlier this year, it became clear that many individuals do want help on family problems, but preferred assistance from the private sector rather than the federal government. In the subsequent national election, a similar message was conveyed with the victory of Ronald Reagan.
Now, in Washington, a new organization has been formed with a goal of at least beginning to pay attention to family issues, with input from the private sector. It will be something worth watching in 1981.
"Friends of the Family" is the new group, formed to help educate the general public on issues of parenting. Located at 2233 Wisconsin Ave. NW, the organization was started by the Education Commission of the States, American Association of University Women, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' administration for children, youth and families.
John Calhoun, commissioner of the HHS administration, says that because of the increasing incidence of adolescent pregnancies, a growing number of single-parent families, family violence and general stress placed on today's family life, "parenting education" is emerging as one of the social priorities of the 1980s.
Representing the private sector -- which itself must begin to ascertain how much of a burden (in cost as well as time) it has added to family management and social stress -- is the Distilled Spirits Council, already known for its public service campaigns over the past decade in support of responsible alcohol use.
This Washington based trade group for the liquor industry will be the new consortium's link to the business community. The council is planning television, print and mass transit advertising aimed at strengthening families as well as scientific research.
The 2,000 local AAUW chapters will be organized to help build support for attention to family problems by their regional civic and business groups.
The name, "Friends of the Family," may sound too much like an already dedicated group here, the "Friends of the National Zoo." But families are like zoos in many ways and, as Joanna Hanes of the new organization says: "The name was chosen because the effort centers on finding solutions rather than simply pointing out the problems of the family today. It's all about parenting, and it's not easy."
Maybe if these family friends can start discovering some solutions, the parameters of a problem many people know exists will become clearer in ways that the broad public can understand. To date, most people concerned have been so involved in parenting themselves that they have been incapable of adequately convincing the non-parenting population that there is a crisis brewing.