For the first time since he began compiling the "Index of Leading Cultural Indicators," William Bennett arguably has had more good news to report than bad. But the bad is precisely in the area that can undermine nearly all of the good. So hold the champagne, at least for now.
Whereas in past compilations, Bennett reported that violent crime had increased by 370 percent between 1960 and 1993, out-of-wedlock childbearing had grown by 450 percent; and the percentage of children receiving welfare had increased by 270 percent -- in 2001 there are signs of that some of these trends have slowed and even reversed.
The best news is that violent crime has suddenly dropped precipitously. Between 1990 and 1997, the overall crime rate fell by 27 percent, taking it to the lowest point since 1973; and the violent crime rate fell by 28 percent, bringing violent crime rates down to a point last seen in 1978. Murder has fallen by 42 percent since 1991.
Some of the decrease in crime is certainly attributable to the fact that, starting in 1990, America began to lock up larger numbers of criminals. Between 1990 and 1999, the rate of sentenced prisoners in the United States increased by 60 percent. Translation: fewer criminals at large. During roughly the same period, the expected sentence for serious crimes increased by 39 percent. (By contrast, between 1960 and 1970, the expected sentences for serious crimes dropped by 20 percent while the crime rate doubled.)
So while law enforcement has clearly made a difference, as has community policing and other strategies, there are clearly other forces at work, too. Get tough police policies cannot, for example, explain the drop in suicides during the 1990s. And even cities like Los Angeles that did not employ the new police tactics saw a drop in crime (though not so dramatic as New York's under Mayor Rudy Giuliani).
The 1990s also saw a slight downtick in the divorce rate -- 5 percent. It's not much when compared with the doubling of the divorce rate between 1960 and 1997, but it's a step in the right direction. There is similar news about the abortion rate. For the first time since 1973, abortions have decreased by 7 percent. Among teen-agers, the drop in abortions since 1990 was 28 percent.
On the other hand, on the all-important measures of social stability -- those touching family structure -- recent years have seen more, not less, damage. Between 1990 and 1999, the percentage of illegitimate births grew by 18 percent. The increase since 1960 is 523 percent. More than two-thirds of all black children are now illegitimate, as are 42.1 percent of Hispanics, and 22 percent of whites.
When women 18 to 49 were asked whether they would consider raising a child on their own, more than 60 percent answered yes. More than 80 percent of black women will be single heads of households at some point in their lives. The median family income for a two-parent married family is four times that of a never-married woman with children.
Not every child raised by a single parent is destined for trouble or poverty -- but the risk is high. These children are three times more likely than those raised by two married parents to have a child out of wedlock themselves, twice as likely to drop out of high school, and 1.4 times more likely to be out of work. Seventy-two percent of teen-age murderers, 70 percent of long-term prison inmates and 60 percent of rapists come from fatherless homes.
And even in homes with both parents present, American children are spending more and more time in front of the TV or the computer, instead of reading, playing or talking to their parents.
The average child spends more than four and a half hours per day watching TV -- and only 23.1 percent of parents think this is too much. Though 64 percent of parents object to the content on television, it isn't clear that they can adequately supervise what the kids are watching when 57 percent of kids ages 8 to 16 have televisions in their bedrooms.