Thursday, November 22, 2007

Flash: America Not Really Going to Hell in a Handbasket

From the November 2007 number of Commentary, an account of how the dire predictions about the decline of American culture in the 1990s have proved to be inaccurate:
As for the social reality underlying this general feeling of decline, a number of conservative commentators, concentrating especially on the areas of crime, welfare dependency, and illegitimacy, undertook the task of quantifying and analyzing the available evidence. The most notable such effort was by William J. Bennett, who in March 1993 released a report entitled The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators.

Over the course of the preceding three decades, Bennett wrote, the United States had indeed experienced “substantial social regression.” About this, the data were unequivocal. Since 1960, there had been a more than 500-percent increase in violent crime; a more than 400-percent increase in out-of-wedlock births; almost a tripling in the percentage of children on welfare; a tripling of the teenage suicide rate; a doubling of the divorce rate; and a decline of more than 70 points in SAT scores. To Bennett, the conclusion was inescapable: “the forces of social decomposition [in America] are challenging—and in some instances overtaking—the forces of social composition.”
But a funny thing happened as American was (in the term used by Robert Bork) slouching toward gomorrah.
In a number of key categories, the amount of ground gained or regained since the early 1990’s is truly stunning. Crime, especially, has plummeted. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), the rates of both violent crime and property crime fell significantly between 1993 and 2005, reaching their lowest levels since 1973 (the first year for which such data are available). More recent figures from the FBI, which measures crime differently from the NCVS, show an unfortunate uptick in violent crime in the last two years—particularly in cities like Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Even so, however, the overall rate remains far below that of the mid-1990’s.

Teenage drug use, which moved relentlessly upward throughout the 1990’s, declined thereafter by an impressive 23 percent, and for a number of specific drugs it has fallen still lower. Thus, the use of ecstasy and LSD has dropped by over 50 percent, of methamphetamine by almost as much, and of steroids by over 20 percent.

Then there is welfare. Since the high-water mark of 1994, the national welfare caseload has declined by over 60 percent. Virtually every state in the union has reduced its caseload by at least a third, and some have achieved reductions of over 90 percent. Not only have the numbers of people on welfare plunged, but, in the wake of the 1996 welfare-reform bill, overall poverty, child poverty, black child poverty, and child hunger have all decreased, while employment figures for single mothers have risen.

Abortion, too, is down. After reaching a high of over 1.6 million in 1990, the number of abortions performed annually in the U.S. has dropped to fewer than 1.3 million, a level not seen since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized the practice. The divorce rate, meanwhile, is now at its lowest level since 1970.

Educational scores are up. Earlier this year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that the nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders continue to improve steadily in math, and that fourth-grade reading achievement is similarly on the rise. Other findings show both fourth- and twelfth-graders scoring significantly higher in the field of U.S. history. Black and Hispanic students are also making broad gains, though significant gaps with whites persist. The high-school dropout rate, under 10 percent, is at a 30-year low, and the mean SAT score was 8 points higher in 2005 than in 1993, the year Bennett published his Index.

More generally, we are seeing important progress in critical areas of youth behavior. Since 1991 (a peak year), the birth rate for teenagers aged fifteen to nineteen has decreased by 35 percent. The number of high-school students who have reported ever having sexual intercourse has declined by more than 10 percent. Teen use of alcohol has also fallen sharply since 1996—anywhere from 10 to 35 percent, depending on the grade in school—and binge drinking has dropped to the lowest levels ever recorded. The same is true of teens reporting that they smoke cigarettes daily.
All of this is good news, but there have been counter trends.
Perhaps most importantly, some of the most vital social indicators of all—those regarding the condition and strength of the American family—have so far refused to turn upward. Even as the teenage birth rate has fallen, out-of-wedlock births in general have reached an all-time high: 37 percent of all births in 2005. Over half of all marriages are now preceded by a period of unmarried cohabitation, and marriage rates themselves have declined by almost one-half since 1970.
We can hope that the general trend toward responsibility will soon affect illigitimacy and cohabitation too. Of course, powerful cultural forces -- most importantly the mass media -- are pushing things in the wrong direction.

But it seemed those cultural forces were also pushing all the other indicators in the wrong direction.

And a hard core of ideologues, the same people who opposed welfare reform and continue to oppose the increased incarceration that was a major factor in decreased crime rates, is firmly ensconced in college faculties, some think tanks and much of the government bureaucracy.

But they were beaten, and can be beaten again.

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