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Index of Leading Cultural Indicators : American Society at the End of the 20th Century

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  • Edition: Revised
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 1999-11-01
  • Publisher: Broadway
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List Price: $10.95


For decades Americans have turned to the Commerce Department's Index of Leading Economic Indicators to spot trends in the economy. The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators brings a similar kind of empirical analysis to the moral, social, and behavioral condition of American society from 1960 to the present--a vivid, clearly accessible portrait in numbers of who and where we are as a nation. First published in 1994 and now completely updated and considerably expanded, it draws from a wide array of government sources and academic studies to offer comprehensive chapters on crime, the family, youth behavior, education, popular culture, and religion, as well as new chapters on civic participation, international comparisons, and decade-by-decade comparisons. For each topic covered, there are statistical and numerical breakdowns; tables and graphs; ranking of states; and a "Factual Overview" interpreting the data. The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators should serve as the starting point of any discussion about America's moral and cultural condition. William J. Bennett's provocative introduction provides the essential context and perspective for the data he's collected, offering an assessment of the problems besetting modern America. Some have gotten better--most notably, crime and welfare rates--leading him to conclude that politics and public engagement in social issues can make more of a difference than he once thought. But there is much else of a worrying nature, and Bennett pulls no punches in identifying pathologies and laying out the challenges we face. No one who cares about American society and a whole range of social issues can afford to be without this essential volume--a statistical snapshot, an invaluable sourcebook, and a call to action.

Author Biography

William J. Bennett is Codirector of Empower America, and a Distinguished Fellow in Cultural Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation. He has served as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Secretary of Education, and Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is the editor of <b>The Book of Virtues</b> and author most recently of the bestselling <b>The Death of Outrage</b>.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
Crimep. 7
Total Crimesp. 9
Violent Crimesp. 15
Juvenile Violent Crimep. 21
Imprisonmentp. 26
Punishmentp. 30
Drug Usep. 34
Familyp. 45
Out-of-Wedlock Birthsp. 47
Single-Parent Familiesp. 57
Marriage and Cohabitationp. 63
Divorcep. 68
Child Well-Beingp. 73
Welfarep. 76
Abortionp. 81
Educationp. 95
Performance: Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)p. 97
Performance: National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)p. 103
Performance: Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT)p. 110
Spendingp. 113
Public Schoolsp. 121
Youth Behaviorp. 129
Out-of-Wedlock Teenage Birthsp. 131
Teenage Abortionp. 140
Teenage Suicidep. 144
Teenage Drug and Alcohol Abusep. 147
Popular Culture and Religionp. 157
Televisionp. 159
Moviesp. 164
Recreation and Leisurep. 168
Church Membershipp. 173
Depressionp. 177
Civic Participationp. 183
Voter Turnoutp. 185
Trust and Cynicismp. 189
Charitable Givingp. 192
Immigrationp. 197
Military Servicep. 201
International Comparisonsp. 207
Decade by Decadep. 237
Note to the Readerp. 247
Sourcesp. 253
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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A decade ago the Berlin Wall was reduced to rubble, marking the collapse of the Soviet empire and the culmination of an extraordinary historical epoch. Our "long, twilight struggle" against Soviet communism had ended in a stunning victory for America and the West. But the end of the Cold War also ushered in a period of intense self-examination in this country. With American ideals having prevailed abroad, the dominant question became: how are we doing at home?

At that time, despite unparalleled economic prosperity and military supremacy, there was a widespread sense that we were in the midst of a decades-long cultural decline. Was this in fact the case? If so, how serious was it? In which areas had we lost the most ground? Were there any areas that had seen improvement?

Much of the discussion of this issue, while thoughtful and instructive, was anecdotal, impressionistic, and speculative. Missing were objective measurements, the cultural equivalents of the Index of Leading Economic Indicators: that is, reliable data, compiled in an easily accessible manner, on the moral, social, and cultural condition of modern American society. Five years ago, in an attempt to respond to the need, I published The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators. My conclusion, on the basis of the long-term trends indicated by the data I had collected, was that, yes, we had indeed experienced substantial cultural decline. To be specific, virtually every important indicator not only got worse, it got much worse. I wrote then that unless these exploding social pathologies were reversed, they would lead to the decline--and perhaps even to the fall--of the American republic. The situation was that bad.

This book is an updated, expanded version of the original Index; it includes more charts and graphs, more tables, more facts and figures on more subjects than the original. To my knowledge, it is the most comprehensive statistical portrait available of social trends since the 1960s.

The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators: American Society at the End of the 20th Century offers chapters on crime, the family, youth behavior, education, popular culture and religion, and civic participation. It compares America with the rest of the world and, decade by decade, with itself; it ranks the fifty states and the District of Columbia. Each chapter provides an extensive factual presentation, including statistical and numerical breakdowns beginning in 1960 and ending (in most cases) in 1997.

What, briefly, can we learn from this exercise? Since the publication of the last Index, there have been many significant, positive developments. The decade of the nineties has seen progress in some key social indicators: reductions in welfare, violent crime, abortion, AIDS, divorce, and suicide; upswings in SAT scores and charitable giving.

A closer look reveals some truly remarkable gains. Since 1994, for example, there has been a 46.5 percent decrease in welfare rolls. The murder rate is at its lowest point since 1967. Alcohol-related traffic fatalities are at their lowest level since the government began keeping such statistics. Since 1993, the reported number of AIDS cases has decreased by more than 50 percent. Near the end of the decade, there are 243,000 fewer abortions per year than at the beginning. There has been a 16-point increase in SAT scores and a 38 percent increase in charitable giving (in inflation-adjusted dollars).

But that is hardly the whole picture. During these same 1990s, we also experienced social regression in several important areas. The percentage of births to unwed mothers--already at the alarmingly high level of 28 percent at the beginning of the decade--is even higher today, at 32.4 percent. America still has the highest divorce rate among Western nations, and the highest incidence of single-parent families of any industrialized nation. Among men and women between their mid-twenties and mid-thirties, living together before marriage is far more common than not. Our rates of sexually transmitted disease far exceed those of every other developed country. In 1998, 5.6 percent of high school seniors reported using marijuana on a daily basis--a 180 percent increase since 1991. In math achievement, American twelfth graders rank nineteenth out of twenty-one nations.

The trends, then, are decidedly mixed, giving rise to opposing interpretations. One camp of observers is quite upbeat, even celebratory; in another camp, occupied mostly by social conservatives, the mood is one of resignation, even despair. In fact, some celebration is in order; authentic gains have been achieved. But the worrisome trends are deeply worrisome--afflicting in particular the American family--and we need to think about them afresh.

The first task is to see what we can learn from the decade's successes. Over the last few years, I have amended some of my own prior views about the efficacy of politics and public policy. It turns out that some social pathologies are less resistant to legislative action and political leadership than I once thought. Consider two examples: the extraordinary transformation of New York City, which was once thought to be virtually ungovernable; and the enormous drop in the welfare caseload following the passage of reform legislation. In short, problems that were considered all but intractable have yielded to well-conceived and well-executed reforms.

Can these positive trends be sustained, or even extended to other areas? Certainly there is no ignoring the magnitude of the problem. In two generations, America has undergone dramatic and traumatic social change--the kind that one would normally associate with cataclysmic natural events like famine, revolution, or war. Civilizations stand on precious few pillars, and during the last three and a half decades, many of ours have fractured. Although we have learned to live with the situation, much as one might learn to live with a thorn deeply embedded in the flesh, it is important to remind ourselves periodically just how much ground we have lost.

Since 1960, our population has increased by 48 percent. But since 1960, even taking into account recent improvements, we have seen a 467 percent increase in violent crime; a 463 percent increase in the numbers of state and federal prisoners; a 461 percent increase in out-of-wedlock births; more than a 200 percent increase in the percentage of children living in single-parent homes; more than a doubling in the teenage suicide rate; a more than 150 percent increase in the number of Americans receiving welfare payments; an almost tenfold increase in the number of cohabiting couples; a doubling of the divorce rate; and a drop of almost 60 points on SAT scores. Since 1973, there have been more than 35 million abortions, increasing from 744,060 in 1973 to 1,365,700 in 1996.

These seismic social changes have had a profound impact on American politics, to the point that it has changed how politicians campaign and how our elected representatives govern. Issues that were once peripheral to politics are now among the most important of all. The outcome of the 2000 presidential campaign could well depend on which candidate deals with cultural issues in the most responsible, serious-minded, careful, and convincing way. Social and cultural issues--symbolized by moments like the horrific school shooting in Littleton, Colorado--are the ones that most concentrate the American mind these days.

Even during a time of record prosperity, many Americans believe that something has gone wrong at the core.

During the last half of this American century, we have made extraordinary progress in medicine, science, and technology. We have advanced the cause of civil rights at home and human rights abroad. We have achieved unprecedented levels of wealth and affluence. The United States offers unparalleled opportunity and freedom. But we have lost something precious in the process.

The nation we live in today is more violent and vulgar, coarse and cynical, rude and remorseless, deviant and depressed, than the one we once inhabited. A popular culture that is often brutal, gruesome, and enamored with death robs many children of their innocence. People kill other people, and themselves, more easily. Men and women abandon each other, and their children, more readily. Marriage and the American family are weaker, more unstable, less normative.

These are social realities, and they pose an enormous challenge to us; it would be self-delusion, and self-defeating, to pretend otherwise. But surely the successes of the nineties do give us something upon which to build. Above all, they remind us that we do not have to sit passively by while our culture breaks apart. To those who believe our decline is inevitable because social trends are irreversible, our answer should be: no, it need not be so, and we will not allow it to happen.

Restoring a civilization's social and moral order--making it more humane, civil, responsible, and just--is no simple task. But America remains what it has always been: an exceptional nation. Our capacity for self-renewal is rare, and real. We have relied on it in the past. For reasons you are about to see, we must call on it again.

Excerpted from The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators: American Society at the End of the 20th Century by William J. Bennett
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