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L.A. families burdened with too much stuff

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Say good-bye to idyllic images of Southern California life. Clutter-strewn garages, abandoned yards and families who are too busy to actually enjoy the possessions they work hard to acquire better describe life in L.A.

Such are the findings of UCLA researchers at the Center for the Everyday Lives of Families, who are taking a close look at how middle-class families in Los Angeles really live.

The researchers meticulously documented the activities and whereabouts of 32 families — all with young children and parents who both work full-time — over a four-day period that included a weekend. These latest findings, based on observations of the first 24 of these families, comprise one of a series of studies being done by the center.

"Middle-class families in Southern California don't live the way you might expect," said Jeanne Arnold, a professor of anthropology at the center. "Most parents in dual-income families never spend leisure time in their yards, their children play outside much less than expected and most cars can't fit in garages because they're too full of clutter from the house."

Roughly 75% of middle-class Los Angeles homeowners suffer from a "storage crisis," Arnold said, using their garages in ways that preclude parking cars. "From construction materials to excess furniture and toys, storage of material goods has become an overwhelming burden for most middle-class families," she said.

"We found items blocking driveways, cluttering backyard corners and spilling out of garages," said Ursula Lang, a Berkeley architect and a study co-author.

Ironically, much of the garage-stored material goes unused. Half of the families never even visited their garage spaces during the study, and among those who did, more than half spent 10 minutes or less among their possessions.

"Trapped in an energy-draining, work-and-spend cycle, many young dual-earner families seem to fuel their stress and frustration by buying more possessions than their homes can absorb, adding to their debt and routinely conscripting crowded garage spaces to function as chaotic storage rooms," Arnold said.

Researchers think the same pattern may emerge among families elsewhere in America, even in cities where inclement weather makes garage space for a car important.

While garages were overused, the yards of middle-class homes were often neglected. Adults barely spent time in their backyards; when they did, it was to do chores. In fact, about half of the families spent no leisure time at all in the backyard during the study period. This included families with swimming pools, play sets, and formal decks and patio spaces.

"Relaxing in the backyard and extended play by children in the yard may be cherished ideals, but they are rarely achieved among today's time-stressed, electronically oriented families," Arnold said. "The harried week of the dual-earner, middle-class family — with job, commute, keeping up the home, and structured activities for children on many afternoons and weekends — allows little time for leisure outdoors."

Front yards were no more popular. Beyond fleeting exchanges between neighbors or brief instances of children playing with a bike or ball, 20 of the 24 families studied spent no time to speak of in their front yards. Only one family socialized on the front porch, a once-familiar activity in small-town America.

Read the complete study in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues at www.springerlink.com.

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