Over the past month I have done fifteen posts on American social indicators. (See Index) What can we conclude from what these indicators? First, I think we can say that the worst year in American history over the last fifty years was probably about 1981.
- The property crime rate hit its high in 1975 but violent crime was at its worst in 1981. The highest murder rate was in 1980.
- The suicide rate peaked in 1977.
- The abortion rate peaked in 1981.
- The divorce rate peaked in 1981.
- The highest rate for illicit drug use for high school seniors was in 1979, and for illicit drug use excluding marijuana was in 1981.
- The highest rate of cigarette use for high school seniors was in 1975, and for alcohol was in 1978.
- The rate for all (combined) sexually transmitted diseases was highest in 1977.
- The high school dropout rate declined steadily in the years prior to 1973. It flattened out and then peaked in 1979, before continuing the historical pattern of decline.
- Composite SAT scores hit their lowest levels in 1980 and 1981.
- The highest rate of inflation was in 1980.
- The highest rate of poverty was in 1983.
- Unemployment hit its highest rate in 1982.
- Median household inflation adjusted income was lower in 1981-1983 than in it was in 1972.
Second, over the last twenty-five years there has been at least modest improvement in all these measures and substantial improvement in several. Additionally, life expectancy continues a 150 year trend of increases and infant mortality is at all time lows.
This is not to say that every trend is positive:
- Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise in recent years.
- The rate of children being born out side of two parent environments is at historical highs and is slowly growing.
- Education trends as represented by ACT scores may be taking a negative turn.
- The status of African-Americans as a group relative to Whites has been slowly improving but seemingly at a snails pace in too many regards. (Approximately two-thirds of African-American children are in single parent homes. The rate among Whites is slowly closing the gap.)
- While the poor have a better quality of life than thirty years the increase in the rate of child poverty, stongly linked to the increase in one parent homes, is not a positive development.
Still, the overall picture is remarkably positive.
Third, and most importantly, these indicators tell me that there is a significant disconnect between what is happening and what the general populace perceives is happening. When I talk with people, regardless of political or ideological persuasion, there is a sense of gloom. There is a belief that our culture is in decay (although sometimes for opposing reasons depending on ideology.) Some reference the fall of the Roman Empire (due to cultural decay) as the metaphor for our day. Yet as I have shown, a great many of the most significant indicators point towards improving cultural health, not decay. So why do we fell so gloomy?
Some suggest that the War in Iraq and America's response to threats of terrorism have heightened our anxiety. I don't dismiss this altogether but the sense of gloom precedes the events of 9/11, so I think there must be something deeper.
Some would suggest that major media outlets harp on the negative and the sensational to make money. Consequently, we get an exaggerated and distorted nature of how things are. The increased competition between media has brought this about. I suspect there is some truth in this claim. However, I think at least two other factors are more central.
First, I think there is combination of rising expectations and the law of diminishing returns. When we began to make headway on addressing some issue, expectations rise. We believe we should be able to do even more. Often, substantial improvements can easily and quickly be made in addressing almost any social problem but each succeeding level of improvement tends to get exponentially more difficult and costly while rendering more modest levels of change. Thus, even though great improvement is made over time, a growing sense of frustration develops with not being able to effect improvements in the present.
Second, a probably most significantly, is a cultural divide about what a healthy culture looks like and what creates it. If we polled a broad spectrum of Americans, I don't think there would be much disagreement about my assessment of most of the variables I have reviewed . However, if we polled about what has led to these improvements, and what will lead to more improvement, I would expect we might find a stark divide.
I expect that there would be one group that would say that it has been the return to traditional family values, economic freedom, law enforcement and alternatives to public education that has led to the turnaround we see in the culture. Another group would say it is the enforcement of constitutional rights (especially for women and minorities), government intervention, freedom from oppressive traditionalism (including religion), and public education that has made the difference. I suspect that these two groups are both minorities but they are highly agitated and energized minorities. Each group sees the other's vision as an apocalyptic destruction of the gains made and a deterrent to future progress. Both factions are now lead by idealistic, militant Baby Boomers who, feeling a creeping sense of their own mortality, are rallying for one last charge to conform the world into their idealistic visions. Because these camps are the energized people in the electorate, these are the people to whom the political parties cater.
Meanwhile, a third group of Americans (probably also a minority) is not swayed by either of the camps and takes a variety of more nuanced perspectives. Yet they feel pessimistic about the future because the rancorous vitriol of the other two groups. In short, there is no consensus about what direction the nation needs to go in order to move forward.
For those who have read the works of William Strauss and Neil Howe, you will know this is not the first time we have been in this predicament. Our era is very similar to the mood of the late 1930s, the late 1850s (especially with an eerie similarity of having two different kinds of states: slave/free, red/blue) or the 1760s. There is an ebb and flow to cultural consensus and right know I suspect we are at low tide. I doubt that the tide will perceptibly be rolling in for at least another decade.
Without consensus about direction or cause and effect in cultural change, every move on one or more of the social indicators only reinforces the templates used by those with the biggest cultural megaphones of our time. While things are getting better, everyone views things as becoming more precarious.
On the other hand, maybe it is just human nature to be pessimistic; to see disaster around every corner. More than 230 years ago, Adam Smith wrote:
"The annual produce of the land and labour of England is certainly much greater than it was, a century ago. Few people doubt this, yet during this period, five years have seldom passed in which some book or pamphlet has not been published pretending to demonstrate that the wealth of the nation was fast declining, that the country was depopulated, agriculture neglected, manufactures decaying, and trade undone. Nor have these publications been all political party pamphlets. Many of them have been written by very candid and very intelligent people, who wrote nothing but what they believed, and for no other reason but because they believed it." (Wealth of Nations. HT: Mark Perry)
These are just some of my thoughts. Thanks for reading along with this series.