November 28, 2007

Mostly Good News

"...a strange thing happened on the way to Gomorrah..."

The lead article in the December Commentary is up at the site and worth a close look. In "Crime, Drugs, Welfare—and Other Good News", Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin examine some positive cultural trends in the U.S. over the last fifteen years that seem to refute much of the persistent pessimism of commentators on the "leading cultural indicators" in our society.

While the news is generally good on issues like crime, drugs, welfare and abortion, the authors lament the lack of statistical improvement on issues relating to family...out of wedlock births and divorce among them, and then set about to make sense of the numbers. You'll want to read it all, but here's a sample:

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.

(As an aside, a note in the new issue indicates that Commentary Editor-designate John Podhoretz, who is slated to take over that job in January 2009, has been tasked in the meantime with working to upgrade the magazine's web presence. Let's just say that it didn't take long. The improvements are noticeable already.)

UPDATE 11/28: Co-author Peter Wehner follows up with a piece today at NRO, this time as a rejoinder to Pat Buchanan's relentless pessimism about America.

Posted by dan at November 28, 2007 1:11 AM