"How are we doing?" This is the question that the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research posed this month in a fascinating compilation of more than 50 years of polls and indexes that measure this country's performance and what we think of ourselves and our society.
The answers tell us a lot of important things about America and about Americans that too often get overlooked or ignored when we take stock of our country.
For example, most Americans remain satisfied with their jobs, their standard of living and with their future economic prospects:
cA robust 85 percent of us were satisfied with our jobs in 1963 and that figure remained virtually unchanged in 1997, despite huge changes in our economy and our workforce.
cWhile 77 percent were satisfied with their standard of living in 1963, that figure jumped to 85 percent this year, reflecting the rise of America's affluence over the past four decades.
cThe strongest improvement in this category is in how most Americans view their future economic prospects. While 64 percent were satisfied with them in 1963, that percentage reached 80 percent this year, a strong reaffirmation of America's confidence in the future in the age of the New Economy.
Moreover, most Americans still believe that if you work hard you can get ahead, though there is a little erosion in that view today. In 1952 as many as 87 percent agreed that "those who work hard can go as far as" they want to. Only 9 percent disagreed. By 1997, 79 percent believed that and 18 percent did not.
Many more Americans believe they are better off than their parents were. Only 64 percent thought so in 1981, in the midst of a very deep recession, while 35 percent said they were not better off. Last year 70 percent said they were better off, compared with 29 percent who said they were not.
But, like our parents, we harbor doubts about how well our children will do. In 1986, the middle of the Reagan boom years, 74 percent of all adults thought that their children would be better off financially than they were. Only 52 percent believed that in 1996.
There have been troubling changes in our society, from our workforce to the family. One of the worst: the number of children being raised in a two-parent family has fallen sharply. In 1995, a stunning 52 percent of black children under the age of 18 were living with their mothers only, up from 20 percent in 1960. The percentage was up to 18 percent for white children, 28 percent for Hispanics, 23 percent for all children - all up dramatically from relatively low figures the 1960s.
Correspondingly, the arrest rates for violent crimes among young people was also up dramatically. In 1995, we were arresting 168 youths under the age of 18 for every 100,000 people, up from 58 persons per 100,000 in 1965.
The number of high school seniors using hard drugs was also up. It shot up to 45 percent in 1975, then fell back to 27 percent in the early 1990s after the war on drugs crusade of the 1980s. But it has begun climbing sharply again, up to 40 percent in 1996. …