U.S. scores gains in war on cultural turpitude

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. political system is dysfunctional and the economy is still struggling, especially for those in the middle and working classes. But when it comes to the biggest concern of some experts a generation ago — the decay of our culture — there is evidence that the country is doing all right.

In the 1990s, the conservative Bill Bennett, a former education secretary and drug czar, devised his "Index of Leading Cultural Indicators." He worried about a pervasive decline in U.S. moral values and "eroding social pathologies." A few years later, he tempered his negative assessment, seeing some improvements, but he was still pessimistic.

In a recent interview, Bennett said that he now sees more progress than deterioration and that his worst forebodings hadn't materialized.

"We're not headed for catastrophe," he said.

The positive developments include falling crime rates, fewer abortions and a remarkable decline in teenage pregnancies. Less encouraging are the increasing number of single-parent families and the huge prison population. On health matters, cigarette-smoking continues to drop, but drug use doesn't.

Crime has been declining steadily, with rare exceptions, for the past couple of decades. Since 1995, the murder rate has been reduced almost by half, and violent crime is down by more than 43 percent.

Although compared with almost any other country, the United States is plagued by an epidemic of gun violence, firearms-related homicides — in keeping with other crime data — have declined sharply since the 1990s.

Bennett and other social observers have analyzed many indicators, including educational and economic data. The state of the family is always central. Americans marry and divorce more than the citizens of any other industrialized nation.

One of the most troubling elements of the picture isn't a new one. In 1965, a young, relatively unknown Labor Department official named Daniel Patrick Moynihan authored a report that warned that almost a quarter of black Americans were born to single mothers; the number for whites was only 3 percent.

Four and a half decades later, the rate for blacks has tripled to 72 percent of all births. The rate for whites has increased tenfold, to 29 percent, higher than the rate for blacks in the Moynihan report. (For Hispanics, it's 53 percent.)

It has been conclusively demonstrated that, on average, children raised without two parents do considerably worse educationally and economically. There is little consensus, however, on how to reverse the trend or even its underlying causes. A decade and a half ago, the current Federal Reserve chairman nominee, Janet Yellen, and her Nobel laureate economist husband, George Akerlof, wrote a paper on "out-of-wedlock childbearing" that refuted both conservative ideas and a few liberal ones. Any new theory has been elusive.

Even so, an especially encouraging harbinger of change is the dramatic progress over the past two decades in reducing pregnancies and birth rates among teenagers. Although they remain higher than in most other countries, both rates have dropped about 40 percent in 20 years. This would come as a surprise to most Americans; in one survey, half of the respondents said teen pregnancies and birth rates were still rising.

This turnaround has been led by groups such as the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which uses education and pressure on the entertainment industry and media and sidesteps polarizing ideological postures.

"The magic combination of less sex and more contraception has contributed to this national success story," says Sarah Brown, the chief executive officer of the campaign.

Teens are waiting longer to have sex, have fewer partners, use contraceptives more and, perhaps most important, "there is a growing social norm," she says, "that teen pregnancy is not OK."

The U.S. remains beset by difficulties, political, economic and cultural. Some of the social trends, however, are more positive. To study them provides hope that the country isn't, as one doomsayer declared in the 1990s, slouching toward Gomorrah.


Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.