US Social Indicators Send Mixed Signals

By Everett Carll Ladd. Everett Carll Ladd is professor of political science the Roper Center . | The Christian Science Monitor, April 2, 1993 | Go to article overview

US Social Indicators Send Mixed Signals


Everett Carll Ladd. Everett Carll Ladd is professor of political science the Roper Center ., The Christian Science Monitor


OVER the past couple of years, many hands have been wrung over a supposed decline in the competitive position of the US economy. In fact, data show our economy has continued to be a great success story, in absolute terms and in comparison to that of every other industrial democracy.

The proper area for concern is aspects of social and cultural life. Would that the United States could boast of progress regarding the family's status comparable to that of the economy.

A recent report, edited by former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, attempts to quantify the country's social distress through an "Index of Leading Cultural Indicators." These measures point to a number of enormously adverse trends.

Between 1965 and 1980, for example, the divorce rate soared. Although it has since dipped slightly from its 1979 high, it remains more than twice what it was in 1960. The proportion of all births coming out of wedlock jumped from 5 percent in 1960 to 28 percent in 1990. As a result of these developments, the proportion of children being reared in single-parent homes has tripled over the last three decades and is still rising. Most of these homes are maintained by mothers.

Many factors influence the quality of family life. But overall, statistics show that children in single-parent homes are at a disadvantage. Bureau of Justice Statistics data indicate, for instance, that they are much more likely to be involved in crime. An overwhelming proportion of young people in long-term juvenile detention facilities come from single-parent households. This is true for whites and blacks alike.

It is important that we face up more fully to the terrible consequences of such developments. But it is also important that we not overlook successes. Many Americans are working hard to improve the quality of national life beyond matters economic. They need to know that some of their efforts are bearing fruit.

At certain points Mr. Bennett's report lacks balance. For example, it concludes that "while population has increased only 41 percent since 1960, the violent crime rate has increased more than 500 percent and total crimes have increased over 300 percent. …

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