in on Middletown
BEN WATTENBERG: This is Muncie, Indiana, heartland of America and perhaps the most studied, most researched city in the world. It's an extraordinary place precisely because it's thought to be so ordinary. The sociologists have called it Middletown.
What a handsome young man. Back in 1982, I visited Muncie to examine how the city had changed. I returned in 1999 to get a flavor of what was going on at the end of the century. But flavor is no match for data. So "The First Measured Century" commissioned a team of veteran sociologists to work on a new Middletown study.
As the Lynds had 75 years earlier, our researchers surveyed Muncie high school students and housewives.
TEACHER: Understand that the information will be of value in helping educators, social scientists and people interested in the community to understand the changing needs and problems which we face.
BEN WATTENBERG: Theodore Caplow headed the team. Howard Barr was the chief of field research.
HOWARD BARR: So it may well be that this time the message will be some continuity and some significant change.
BEN WATTENBERG: Poring through the data, we found that plenty had changed, beginning with the nature of the economy itself. Muncie had always been a factory town, but by the 1970s, as in much of the industrial heartland, that was changing with both a vengeance and a silver lining. In 1982, Muncie's unemployment rate had soared to 18 percent.
THEODORE CAPLOW: What was happening was that the heavy industry, sort of basic manufacturing industry on which Middletown had always depended, was being phased out. A number of the local plants never recovered. Some of them staggered on for some years. The Ball Glass Jar Company moved away. Indiana Wire & Steel and the packing houses shut down. Delco reduced its workforce and eventually shut down.
BEN WATTENBERG: America was changing, and so was Muncie. What replaced jars and cars? Ball State University and Ball Memorial Hospital, the two largest employers in Muncie in the year 2000. In the new Muncie, unemployment declined to 3 percent.
HOWARD BAHR: The Muncie of 1999 is no longer a blue-collar community. It's no longer primarily an industrial community. It's a college town. It's a town where service industry, as in the rest of America, has grown to become one of the major sources of income.
BEN WATTENBERG: What else has changed in Muncie? The structure of the family, just as in the rest of America. In 1924, the Lynds found that nearly all Muncie children grew up with both natural parents. By 1977, that number dropped to 68 percent and kept falling.
HOWARD BAHR: In 1999, only half of the Middletown high school students could report that they lived in an intact family. One-fifth, 18 percent, lived with mom alone. Another fifth lived in stepparent families.
BEN WATTENBERG: As in the rest of America, more women in Muncie are working. So it comes as little surprise that women there spend less time keeping house. In 1924, 87 percent of married women in Muncie averaged four or more hours a day of housework. That figure had dropped to 43 percent in 1977, and by 1999, all the way down to 14 percent.
THEODORE CAPLOW: Doing the laundry for a family might consume two and a half woman days in 1924. The same is true of cooking, food preparation, cleaning. In all respects, housework has been drastically simplified, and that is why women are now able, at the same time that they are effectively compelled, to join the labor force.
BEN WATTENBERG: Women are spending more time at the job and less time doing housework. But does all this add up to an erosion of the family?
THEODORE CAPLOW: One of the results that looks paradoxical here, because everybody knows about the great pressure that women have in reconciling their work role and their roles as wives and mothers, we find that they spend more time with their children, and so do fathers, than they did in 1977, and much more time than they did in 1924.
BEN WATTENBERG: The Lynds found that 45 percent of Muncie mothers spent more than two hours a day with their children. By 1977, that number had risen to 65 percent. And our researchers found that in 1999, it had gone up to 71 percent.
Regarding religion in Muncie, our research found both continuity and change. Some data show that the importance of religion has declined.
HOWARD BAHR: The Lynds gave a list of a dozen or so characteristics and asked parents to pick the ones that they thought were most important. And the ones that came up in 1924 were that their children be good churchgoers, that they have religion, and that they learn strict obedience. By '99, the characteristics that parents in Middletown are most keen to impart to their children, even though obedience would help them, are that the kids be tolerant and that they be independent.
BEN WATTENBERG: Still, religious faith continued to play a strong role in family life.
HOWARD BAHR: You have those indications of continuity in religious belief. You have the church attendance, which, if anything, is a little higher in '77 and the '90s than it is in 1924.
BEN WATTENBERG: Let's listen to some responses to an open-ended survey question: "What do you think about when you're in trouble? Where do you turn to?"
WOMAN: I go to church because I want my children to know there is a God. I'm a true believer of God, but I don't go often enough to church. I go to church because it's an important influence for us and the children. We need anchors in life. It's a very comfortable, friendly congregation, a great minister.