Once upon a time, most homes were built with an expansive porch opening out toward the street. These days, a new house is more likely to have a deck off the back and a privacy fence around the yard.

The change shows how much families are drifting away from their neighbors and their community, says Dennis K. Orthner, professor of social work and associate director of the Jordan Institute for Families.

Families used to look out on the street and watch other families go by,” he says. “By moving the front porch to the back porch, we’ve isolated ourselves.”

For the past few years, Orthner has been tracking the well-being of North Carolina families through a survey called the Family Strength Index. The survey defines a strong family as one able to acquire basic necessities, solve everyday problems, agree on values and beliefs, turn to others in times of trouble, and meet family members’ various needs.

For three years, Orthner saw a promising trend. Between 1994 and 1996, the percentage of strong families climbed from 54 to 62 percent. But this year, the percentage of strong families dropped back to 55 percent.

In part, Orthner attributes this year’s drop to some powerful forces, including welfare reform and corporate downsizing, that have chipped away at family strength.

But after conducting the survey for four years, Orthner recognizes that, even in the best economic times, most North Carolina families are handicapped by weak social networks. This includes families in all income groups, racial communities, and regions of the state.

Americans, in general, value independence and competition more than cooperation, Orthner says. But when families have internal problems, they need outside support. This year, only one in three North Carolina families reported that they have someone outside the home they can count on when they have a problem they can’t solve themselves. “Self-reliance is a very poor substitute for networks of support when things get tough,” Orthner says. “It’s at that point when most families fall apart.”

But bringing people together into meaningful communities can be difficult.

Mike Nelson, pastor of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Raleigh, thinks that sometimes the modern world conspires against strong families. People move more frequently than they have before. Nuclear families often lose their connection to extended kin. Companies feel less loyalty to their employees. These things, he says, make for isolated families.

He’s also noticed that people don’t spend time developing intimate relationships. “They don’t have the patience to build trust,” he says. “They abandon relationships when things get difficult. They don’t want to take the time.”

Without external support, families that seem strong often fall apart under pressure, especially when they’re struggling to make ends meet.

Families at all income levels reported more financial insecurity in 1997, including people with comfortable middle-class incomes. But those earning below $30,000 a year felt most vulnerable. Many people in this income bracket tend to rely on fragile company benefits or some form of government assistance, such as Medicaid, housing assistance, or social security. Orthner says welfare reform has hit these people hard.

Some of those underlying support systems have actually eroded,” Orthner explains. “There’s also a perception that the government doesn’t care any longer for people who are of low income or no income.”

Sabrina Farrar, a former welfare recipient who now works for the Chapel Hill Housing Department, says welfare reform—and the new state and federal guidelines limiting people to two years of benefits at a time—has made it harder for low-income people to become self-sufficient.

Two years goes by fast,” Farrar says. “For young, new mothers who can’t always make it to (Work First) class, who don’t have day care, two years isn’t much time at all.”

But people in higher income groups aren’t immune to financial insecurity. Families making over $50,000 a year also reported feeling less financially secure.

I think corporate downsizing has begun to take its toll on that group,” Orthner says.

Shifts in the business climate toward leaner, meaner corporations have affected families at all income levels, he says. Increasingly, full-time jobs are replaced by more temporary and part-time work.

Temporary jobs can be helpful for some people looking for full-time employment, but sometimes they can stretch out longer than anticipated. And temporary jobs don’t carry the benefits of health insurance and pension plans. “Those people are increasingly without benefits,” Orthner says.

According to a study by Arne L. Kalle-berg, Kenan professor and chairman of sociology, almost 30 percent of all jobs in the nation were part-time or temporary in 1995. One-third of all women and one-quarter of all men work in such jobs.

Kalleberg’s study, published by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC, shows that only 23 percent of women and 15 percent of men in part-time and temporary jobs receive either health insurance or pensions from their employers.

Kalleberg’s study, which uses recently released U.S. Census Bureau data, is the first to compare the quality of temporary work to standard full-time work. He and his co-authors found that the majority of non-traditional workers—58 percent—are employed in the lowest quality and poorest paid jobs, usually in the service sector. Many people in these jobs do not earn enough money to lift a family of four out of poverty, even when working full time, year round.

African American and Hispanic workers hold many of these temporary and part-time jobs. In fact, both Kalleberg and Orthner have found that non-white Americans often have a harder time getting by. This year, the Family Strength Index found that 60 percent of white families said they were getting along fine, compared with 39 percent of black families. This discrepancy, Orthner says, shows up every year, even when accounting for income, education, single parenthood, and geography.

The obvious explanation is that there’s still an element of racism in our society and state, and we have to recognize it and do everything possible to eliminate it,” Orthner says.

Equalizing educational and employment opportunities will help, he says, but a steady paycheck isn’t necessarily a ticket to health for any North Carolina family. Every family could benefit by strengthening their ties to the community.

Orthner believes that the community needs to play a role too. He thinks that parks and recreation organizations, for example, could do a better job involving family members in the same activity. Right now, the emphasis is on sports that tend to segregate their participants by age and sex. The old adage is true, he says. Families that play together stay together.

Mary Dalrymple was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.