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Checking the National “Dashboard”

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

You know those polls where they ask people if the country is heading in the right direction? One problem with that question is that it lacks context or detail. What makes us say yes or no? It’s generally a gut reaction that often has little to do with any actual evidence.

And let’s face it. It’s ridiculous to assume that everything is going one way or the other. At any given time, some things are going well, and others aren’t.

Besides, not everything is of equal weight. Think of the various warnings you get from the dashboard of your car. Needing to get air in one of your tires, or adding washer fluid, isn’t as important as making sure your radiator is topped off with coolant, and your gas tank isn’t about to run dry.

All of this came to mind as I was reading The Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity. Think of it as a national dashboard of social indicators. Some gauges look pretty good. Others are flashing red.

The Index is subtitled “The Social and Economic Trends that Shape America,” and it runs the cultural gamut. Topics range from marriage, drug use and welfare to crime, education and religious attendance. But rather than a deep dive into policy minutiae, the Index offers a data-driven snapshot of where things stand, good and bad.

Bad news first. I can’t list everything, of course, but the highlights (or perhaps I should say “lowlights”) include:

  • More people using food stamps. In 1970, the number of Americans receiving food stamps was below 10 million. It began rising after that, but as recently as 2005, it was still below 30 million. Between then and 2015, food-stamp participation grew by about 20.1 million people. Those tempted to blame the “Great Recession” may not be aware that the federal government created several waivers in the program, one of which allows able-bodied adults with no children to avoid work and stay on food stamps in the long term.
  • A lower fertility rate. From 2004 to 2014, the total fertility rate declined by 0.19 births per woman. This disturbing trend could lead to worker shortages and lower rates of economic growth.
  • A rise in teen drug abuse. The percentage of 12th graders who used illicit drugs in the past month is still well below the high (pardon the pun) it reached in the late 1970s, but it’s close to 25 percent, up half a percentage point in 2015 over what it was in 2005. 
  • An increase in single-parent households. Even with two parents, raising children is a daunting task. So it’s worrisome to see the percentage of households with one parent go up by 2.1 points from 2005 to 2015.

On the plus side, we have:

  • More school choice. The Index shows that charter school enrollment is up. It increased by 1.7 million students from 2004 to 2014. And from 2005 to 2015, the number of students in private school-choice programs increased by 285,606.
  • A declining divorce rate. From 1979 to 2014, the rate dropped from 5.3 per 1,000 to 3.2 per 1,000, a 40 percent decrease.
  • Fewer abortions. From 2001 to 2011, the number of abortions per 1,000 women dropped by four, and stands today almost as low as it was in 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade. Polls also show a significant rise in the number of Americans who believe abortion is morally wrong.
  • Less crime. The violent crime rate declined by 97.7 crimes per 100,000 people between 2004 and 2014.

This is only a sample of the 31 trends covered in the 2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity, which also includes brief commentary from leading experts on the factors behind each category.

It’s clear we have reasons to celebrate … and lament. But we won’t know which is which, and why, without checking the dashboard. The Index can help us do that -- and start to move more things in the right direction.

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